This article appeared in the February 14, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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What it takes to be a great president

Courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein produced a shortlist of talents he believed the most effective U.S. chief executives shared. Emotional intelligence was the most important item on his attribute list.

What makes a good president? Two words: emotional intelligence.

That was the opinion of renowned presidential scholar Fred Greenstein, in any case. I reread his famous thoughts on the personal qualities that determine presidential performance this week when researching an upcoming Presidents Day piece.

Dr. Greenstein taught politics at Princeton for 30 years. His research helped rejuvenate President Dwight Eisenhower’s reputation, among other things.

Another of his life’s work was intriguing: poring over White House memos and other documents to evaluate presidents on their effectiveness as leaders.

His conclusion was a shortlist of talents he believed the most effective U.S. chief executives shared. The best presidents were effective public communicators, he decided. They had superior organizational capacity and political skills. They had vision. Their cognitive styles reflected strategic thinking, though different presidents were smart in different ways.

But emotional intelligence was the most important item on his attribute list, wrote Dr. Greenstein. By that, he meant “the president’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them.”

Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were among the presidents whose lack of emotional intelligence handicapped them, according to Dr. Greenstein. As to the current occupant of the Oval Office, Dr. Greenstein died in 2018, and thus saw only the beginning of President Donald Trump’s term. But according to a colleague, he did say that to a scholar of leadership, the Trump presidency was fascinating. 

Why? “Because it’s so different from anything else,” he reportedly said.

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This article appeared in the February 14, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 02/14 edition