The psychological capital of world leaders

Cristina Simón. Dean of Psychology. IE University

5 November 2009

Obama has emerged as a political leadership icon, largely owing to his psychological capital, based on will, self-confidence and optimism.

Given the fact that the G8 summit held recently in Italy has passed by very discreetly as far as the current international economic situation is concerned, perhaps we can take the opportunity to examine this group of powerful politicians from a different standpoint. It is also true that references to psychology have abounded in the economic analyses of recent months (unfortunately, in some cases as an attempt to justify what cannot be justified), which leaves room for a psychological profile of these world players and their influence on mere mortals.

It is well known that the personality of leaders has a direct effect on their management results, especially when they are of international importance. The incipient field of positive psychology is working to identify more specifically the strengths and personal traits responsible for said effect in a variety of contexts.

On an institutional and organisational level, we focus on the so-called psychological capital. Similar to the way in which financial capital (what you have), intellectual capital (what you can do) and social capital (whom you have contact with) are defined, psychological capital is ´the way you are´, i.e. the set of positive characteristics of a personality we deploy in our professional lives. At work, said characteristics can make a difference in the results attained. More specifically, we are speaking of will (motivation that focuses on attaining an objective), realistic optimism (confidence in the positive outcome of future events), resilience (capacity for constantly dealing with adverse or risky conditions) and self-confidence (trust in one´s own capacity for attaining the targets that have been proposed). The studies carried out in different professional areas have repeatedly shown that the combination of these four characteristics substantially improves performance at work. In addition, people with a ´structured´ psychological capital have more and better social relations, report higher levels of happiness and well-being and enjoy better health (less stress, fewer cardiovascular crises, etc.).

Can we see these characteristics in our leaders? From my point of view, Barack Obama not only shows these traits very clearly, but also has an undeniable ability to use them in his political career and generate the resulting social impact. The slogan of his campaign (Yes We Can), which had such an effect all over the world, contains (in only three words) conviction, self-confidence and optimism, as well as a call for social cohesion. Although the results of his politics will have to be judged over the long term, his behaviour as a leader is disconcerting for many, simply because he instils trust in the future from a realistic analysis of the situation. He does not hide the adversities, but he does not allow them to take over. Things have been very different with many other politicians. Far from inspiring motivation and trust, the attempt to generate a foolish illusion of the idea that ´everything is fine´ (or ´everything is terrible´, depending on the purposes of each one) greatly irritates citizens, who, besides a feeling of deception, see their anguish increased by a future their supposed leaders do not seem to be capable of controlling.

We can appreciate signs of extreme self-confidence in other leaders who have taken part in the G8 summit (Zarkozy is a good example). Resilience is also there and very evident in the politics implemented by Angela Merkel at the head of a coalition government that has been in power over the years and is reporting incredible levels of popularity among German voters. Another good example comes from the comparison between the current British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his predecessor, Tony Blair. Even though we give the former the benefit of the doubt as far as psychological capital is concerned, it is obvious that Blair knew how to make the very best of his, which can be seen very clearly in the valuation of his respective terms of leadership by his citizens.

To conclude, psychological capital is a fundamental condition for leadership and politicians should develop it to the full if they want to earn the trust and support of their voters, because painting the future pink is not enough. We need large amounts of realism, tenacity and trust in society so that we can build a positive future for everyone.

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