Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
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McCain’s Maverick Nature is Double-Edged Sword
October 14, 2008
As the 2008 presidential campaign enters the home stretch in a time of growing economic uncertainty, voters are taking a new look at John McCain, who clinched the Republican nomination largely on the basis of his military and foreign policy credentials in a time of war.
But, as we learned on 9/11 – and again with the current financial meltdown – rapidly arising circumstances can upend the political environment in the blink of an eye. For that reason, when choosing a leader, voters should take personal qualities into account almost as much as a candidate’s stance on the issues.
To obtain a more precise reading of the real McCain, I consulted four personality profiles of the Arizona senator, developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in 1999, 2007, and the spring and summer of 2008.
Collectively, the profiles reveal a highly dominant individual with a dauntless, dissenting, adventurous streak and a strong outgoing tendency.
Dominant, courageous, outgoing
Dominant personalities are tough,
strong-willed, and outspoken. Leaders with these qualities excel in speaking out
and standing up for what they believe is right, rise easily to leadership
challenges, hold their ground, and demonstrate unflinching courage in the face
of or adversity.
On the debit side, dominant leaders – who have a strong drive for power – tend to be coercive and inflexible. They can be quick on the offensive and when provoked, their first inclination is to dominate and demean their adversary.
Among his strongest assets as a campaigner is McCain outgoing, gregarious nature – a “likeability quotient” he shares with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, which serves him well in connecting with voters on a personal level to win their loyalty and admiration.
Dauntless qualities could be cause for concern
From a psychological perspective, McCain’s high ranking on the “dauntless” pattern is the primary cause for concern. To their credit, dauntless leaders are independent-minded and unconventional, taking clear stands on issues that matter and drawing from a deep well of personal skill, talent, and gut instinct to prevail.
However, dauntless, dissenting types also tend to be impulsive risk-takers who go against the grain, flout conventional wisdom, and – once they have made up their mind – are not easily deterred by risk of harm.
In short, dauntless personalities display a tendency to leap into risky situations without fully anticipating the consequences of their actions. Moreover, they are relatively unconstrained, expressing their thoughts and impulses directly, sometimes in rash, precipitous, or erratic fashion and generally without regrets.
McCain’s dauntless streak, in combination with his strong-willed, tough-minded dominance is the quality that most distinguishes him from his Democratic opponent, the more risk-averse, conciliatory Barack Obama.
As a political leader, the dominant, dauntless McCain’s personality profile implies that he would be driven by a fearless desire to prove his mettle. In times of turmoil, such as the United States currently faces with a serious economic crisis and fighting a war on two fronts, McCain could feel a need to exert his power in defiance of cautionary counsel.
On the positive side, along with the adventurous, risk-taking tendency of dauntless personalities comes the true grit to deal with difficult situations that require courage and boldness. The individualistic McCain’s trademark maverick nonconformity also translates into the ability to resist buckling under pressure from domestic adversaries and foreign enemies, to think for himself, and not to be easily swayed by popular opinion.
This quality may be attractive to voters with lingering doubts that the more conciliatory Obama has the right stuff to draw a line in the sand (to paraphrase the first President Bush), when America’s vital national security interests are at stake.
Furthermore, for voters uneasy with McCain’s fiery temperament, the good news is that dauntless personalities usually become less volatile and impulsive after midlife. As he proceeds through the eighth decade of life, it becomes progressively less likely that McCain would display the kind of hotheadedness and impetuosity characteristic of his youth. In that sense, his age is a definite plus.
On balance, McCain has the experience and potential to be a strong and competent president. Yet the question remains: Is the prospect of bold, courageous leadership worth the risk of a single rash act with the potential to reverberate around the world?
Note. A slightly edited version of this article was published as the "Your Turn" column "Who is John McCain?" in the St. Cloud Times (p. 7B), October 15, 2008.
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Last updated November 04, 2008