Being nice will get you nowhere

20th January 2006 at 00:00
How important is personality? Where does the kind of personality which achieves greatness come from? Are you born with it or is it created? And if it predicts your future more than your education, then maybe education should become partly about shaping personality.

Tony Blair traces his political birth to 1963, when he was 10 and when his father Leo suffered a stroke while campaigning for a Conservative seat. It was the end of Leo's political hopes. "After his illness, my father transferred his ambitions on to his kids," Blair said in 1994.

Many people who achieve greatness and who demonstrate tremendous tenacity are driven by a childhood experience, often a striking setback. They have a deep sense of personal annihilation unless they achieve total victory - hence the dramatic drive.

Does this mean that all notable leaders have an identifiable personality type? Steven Rubenzer and colleagues at the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, Houston, Texas, used a test to assess the personalities of all 41 US presidents to date. In particular they investigated which aspect of personality predicted success in the job.

The 41 were rated through a questionnaire sent to 846 members of the American Historical Association.

The data indicated that most modern presidents are extroverts, a trait lacking in the early incumbents. This has been attributed to "increased influence of the mass media in presidential selection". "Conscientiousness" was only moderately associated with historical greatness, as was tender-mindedness (concern for the less fortunate). Instead greatness was predicted remarkably well by low scores on "straightforwardness".

Presidents who were not judged as straightforward used a variety of tactics to achieve their ends; playing the right tune to each crowd. This result suggests eventual success can be the result of your ability to manipulate those around you.

This has sobering implications for teachers. It could even mean that it's the less immediately likeable kids, even the ones who get into trouble, who could go on to be most successful. This presents a conundrum for the teacher: do we encourage survival skills which we know will help children to become successful adults? Or do we try to influence our children to grow into the kind of adults who are going to try to change the world and make it a better place?

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.

His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email:

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