Are Politicians Psychopaths Or Emotionally Intelligent?


Emotional Intelligence started with a question. Two academics, John Mayer and Peter Salovey who invented the whole field started chatting about politics while painting a house.

Salovey (now Dean of Yale College and Professor of Psychology at Yale University) and Mayer (now Professor at University of New Hampshire) were talking about their research on cognition and emotion, and got to discussing a politician.

They wondered: How could someone so smart act so dumb?

The Paradox of Emotional Intelligence

How is it that so many people in positions of power and leadership achieve this level and maintain in, despite that fact that their emotional intelligence is perceived as low.

Mayer and Salovey started to look at an alternative to IQ as a measurement of “success”.

And while Daniel Goleman helpfully complied all of there research into his book of the same name, the question of success relative to EQ was, and remains difficult to quantify.

In Goleman’s original book there is only one mention of it’s application to leadership (page 149 if you’re interested) because there had been no studies done on this. Emotional Intelligence was instead seen for managers and self management more akin to how Mindfulness is being used today rather than a leadership tool.

Inherently it is a very difficult question to ask of any one, let alone the CEO or President of any company “How high is your EQ?”. It is a little like asking another person how high is their IQ? Unless you have a high IQ score you will not wish to reveal this as it might mean, on a psychological level, you are valued less.

4% of CEOs are Psychopaths

(source: Jon Ronson, author the Psychopath Test)

On the flip side of this coin are psychopaths and sociopaths.

People who have reduced empathic skills and emotional range.

Time and Forbes have both reported that the CEO position is most suited for psychopaths based on observed skills and actions required for their role:

“Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.” Prof Kevin Dutton (author of the Wisdom of Psychopaths)

Perhaps throughout history our glorification of “heroes” has allowed us to turn a blind eye to times when their EQ was a little questionable.

Does History Support EQ Leaders?

Winston Churchill is held up by a majority of Britons as a hero of our times for his leadership through the second World War, but we are less happy to embrace his low EQ aspects. Using poison gas on the Kurds, accepting bribes for pushing though oil company proposals through parliament, his harsh treatment of strikers and those affected by the Bengali Famine. Not to mention his hatred of Ghandi.

But it is true that with the rise of Hitler the UK saw Winston Churchill rise to prominence and lead us through that period of history.

Historically, looking at Churchill or any historical figure it is impossible to genuinely assess what their EQ or IQ was. Simply there are too many other factors and variables.

So, in our world today, is EQ actually necessary to lead?

Let us also be clear on something – positions of power and leadership are not the same thing.

It is an uncomfortable truth that many CEO’s, Presidents and politicians would prefer to ignore.

The UK and US are going through a considerably difficult time politically where voters are disenfranchised with the “democratic” system that has developed over the centuries.

Politics is ruled by power.

Let’s consider two perceived high EQ leaders of countries – Tony Blair and Barack Obama.

Regardless of what they tell us, politicians are leaders only by title. Barack Obama, “Leader of the Free World” – won by 52% of the vote in 2008. Tony Blair won by 63% of the vote in 1997. There is still a large proportion who didn’t vote to elect their “leader”.

Tony Blair swept to office on a wave of optimism following the downfall of the Conservative party in what many hoped would usher in a new era of politics.

Barack Obama changed history by becoming the first elected black President of the United States with the slogans – “Yes we can” and “Change you can believe in”.

Putting aside our political viewpoints it is hard to make a case that both men are not intelligent. They are both very well educated at outstanding academic institutions with very good pedigrees.

Does both have a Barack Obama and Tony Blair have a high EQ?

Does it matter?

Barack Obama is regarded by many to have a high EQ which many could argue helped him to be elected. However, as he winds down his presidential tenure there is talk of how effective he has actually been. The inability to move anything pass congress who have an approval rating at an all time low has certainly not helped our argument.

The US Congress, it could be suggested, has a low EQ score based solely on their inability to manage their own emotions and those around them to affect any real change.

Does this mean that a leader who has high IQ and EQ cannot successfully lead?

Tony Blair, on the other hand, regarded as having very high EQ is currently defending his decision to go to war in Iraq with the US led by George W Bush, who I don’t think anyone will argue the fact, had a EQ and average IQ.

Does this mean that Tony Blair had the wool pulled over his eyes or was there a darker reason?

The biggest problem with quantifying the role of EQ and success is that those who are leaders rarely take EQ tests and then publicly announce their scores. Thus leaving the commentators and pundits to draw their own conclusions.

Modern High EQ “Heroes”

In 2011 the Huffington Post wrote a piece about the top 10 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies with high EQ. One was Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz saying:

He says that the main reason he came back was “love“: for the company and its people. Very dedicated to generous health care benefits — inspired by his father losing his health insurance when Schultz was a kid.

Of course the tax evasion strategies that have allowed Starbucks to avoid significant contributions could be considered an EQ based strategy to allow them to invest where they want to, instead of the politicians. Coupled with slew of stories from disgruntled employees adds to the question mark over CEO’s with perceived high EQ.

In short, EQ is not a panacea for success or leadership potential. There is still no conclusive independent academic evidence to support this.

We should also not confuse high EQ equating to high ethical decision making. The ability to be aware of our own emotions, manage them, manage others emotions and develop relationships can also have a dark side by more unethical characters who we encounter.

However, EQ greatest strength is in helping the individual and those who they work with. But how consistent people are in displaying those attributes lies in the one true self assessment – the mirror.