In a previous post I fantasised about introducing psychometrics into the world of politics. I made a case for the importance of ensuring that the most powerful people in the country have at least some of the attributes required to do their jobs properly. This is something we do daily in the corporate world, but to my knowledge is not applied in selecting leaders anywhere in the world. Let’s take a more granular look at my fantasy through a thought experiment.

Cedric Rulali and Lesego Vuka are on the shortlist of future president of South Africa. The constitution now has a new clause which requires that the future leaders must complete a battery of assessments to determine who is the best fit for the role. It is Monday morning and Mr Rulali arrives 10 minutes early ready to start the day. Mr Vuka is delayed (he blames the traffic) and arrives with a blue-light brigade at our offices 30 minutes late. We wanted to brief them together so Mr Rulali has agreed to wait and spends some time doing his emails in the pause area.

Complexity of thinking is a good proxy for understanding the person’s capacity for strategic thinking, which is seen as an essential requirement in any C-suite role, and presumably, the presidency.

After some cordial introductions, fist pumping, hugs, a cappuccino, and an orientation to the events of the day, we start by using a standard tool to measure complexity of thinking. The exercise involves gradually ramping up the number of variables the person has to consider, yet still retain clarity of thinking and arrive at well formulated conclusions. There are several tests on the market for this. Complexity of thinking is a good proxy for understanding the person’s capacity for strategic thinking, which is seen as an essential requirement in any C-suite role, and presumably, the presidency. The ability to look ahead a few years and make incisive decisions as to how multiple forces from business, the economy, education, labour, health, world politics, opposition parties and population dynamics all weave together takes some brain power. All of these variables are massively complex systems in their own right. The tests indicate that both the leaders are long-term thinkers, but Mr Vuka turns out to be a long-term strategic thinker, but constrained in his thinking. There are variables he ignores altogether and takes some short-cuts to draw conclusions. Mr Rulali seems more capable of taking in a broader range of variables and a meta-position. He is also less random in his deliberations than Mr Vuka, who appears to act impulsively at times, pushing buttons in frustration because of his impatience. The test lasts a few hours and has strained them both a little, so they have a short break, some tea, a walk in the garden, before presenting themselves for the next exercise.

It is a test of abstract reasoning. It measures problem solving. The test looks a little weird. Many different shapes on the page, and the person being tested must find the links between them. It involves cognitive attributes such as analytical and logical reasoning, the ability to find connections between disparate elements whilst under pressure. Analogous, in some way, to the decisions which need to be made under pressure in politics, where a high, but precise action orientation is a standard tool of the trade. The test takes 35 minutes and has 33 questions. There has been a disproportionate focus on cognitive testing as the science has indicated that intelligence is the best overall predictor of job performance. Clever people do better than less clever people, in senior roles. The presidency needs a smart person at the helm.

It is a test of abstract reasoning. It measures problem solving. The test looks a little weird.

They start the test. Mr Vuka looks a little baffled. He gets some of the initial items right, but he has to agonise over them. As they become increasingly difficult his frustration sets in. Time is running out. He realises if he is going to make it through the test he will need to answer much more quickly. He guesses the last 23 questions in 5 minutes. Result: of the 33 questions, he has answered all 33, but only 6 are correct. He has scored at the 21st Percentile.

Mr Rulali has a different experience. His analytical mind is well trained from his studies where making connections, seeking aberrations in data and applying logical reasoning are standard tools of the trade. There is also less focused on the time and more concerned about accuracy. He paces himself carefully. Conscious of working quickly, but never by compromising quality. He gets through 27 of the items. 26 of them are correct. He has scored at the 80th percentile. Both men need to recover a little and the next test is a self-report personality questionnaire. There is no pressure, no right or wrong answers. It takes about 40 minutes. The results of the two men differ considerably.

Interpretation of the personality profiles indicate that both men have high levels of interpersonal awareness. They are interested in people, demonstrate considerable empathy and are able to build relationships quickly. Mr Rulali is much higher on diplomacy. He packages his words more carefully and is conscious of the way he conveys his message. Mr Vuka is more forthright, he cannot play the game of moulding his message quite as well. The result is that he can be blunt and careless with his words, particularly when under pressure. There are differences too in what is called Ego Strength, or secure sense of self. Mr Vuka is more fragile, his emotions are close to the surface and harder to predict. Being high on dominance, he is more likely to vent, be volatile and make more noise. Mr Rulali is much more even-tempered. Under pressure he will generally remain composed and measured in his responses. He has a solid sense of self-awareness and is careful in the way he does impression management. He can see himself through the eyes of others, whereas Mr Vuka has a narrower focus, and less able to reflect on the way the others see him. The deeper assessment of temperament which identifies areas of character risk, show Mr Vuka to be highly self-involved and manipulative. He has a strong external locus of control, blaming those around him and situation forces when things go wrong. He has low impulse control, acting before thinking, and elements of narcissism where he places himself first without considering the impact om others. Mr Rulali is different here. He takes failures personally, open to feedback and interested in how he can learn from mistakes. He rarely takes risks, and may be too cautious, impairing his decision making. High on optimism and positivity he can sometimes be sideswiped by others who are more malicious. He is generally trusting of people, and he can be blind-sided by not seeing the more canny machinations of the fickle politicians around him. There is a naivete there that can sometimes derail his plans. Overall both men are quite different in character and emotional intelligence, with Mr Rulali showing considerably higher levels of interpersonal fortitude.

Finally they do an immersion exercise. There are high volumes of information to absorb in a short time. A course of action must be determined and presented to a sceptical panel. They are placed in separate rooms and given an hour to prepare. After some 15 minutes Mr Vuka is found agitated in the pause area, trying to work the coffee machine. He is struggling with the reading required, impatient with its content, unsure where to start and complaining that it is full of data and commentary that is confounding him. His basic methodology is found wanting. A staff member guides him back to his preparation room encouraging him to work through the material. A brief check in on Mr Rulali finds him making all manner of notes and using the whiteboard to construct a plan of action.

The presentations could not be more different. Mr Rulali is charming to his audience. He engages with them, jokes a little and gets down to business. It is clear he has analysed the detail, but his focus is on the big picture. He talks vision, long-term sustainability, and crafts a vague but credible plan of action. The audience tries to provoke him, challenging him of consequences and presumptions. He takes this well, asking them questions in return, and massaging his solution to absorb some of their ideas, whilst explaining some of the rationale for his decisions. He creates a useful aligned energy in the room, and soon, they all find common language and a way forward.

Mr Vuka’s panel presentation has a different tone. His introduction indicates that he has made little effort with understanding key aspects of the scenario. He tries to outsource the thinking to others, suggesting that it is beneath him to have to engage with such low levels detail. He creates a barrier between him and his audience, who question him on basic assumptions. He gets irritated and pushes back, lecturing them on what they are not seeing. He diverts attention from the action plans by blaming the process, the excessive materials and the lack of experience of the panel. Floundering around like this for a while, he settles into a sulky demeanour, giving one word answers making clear from his attitude that he wants this all to be over. The panel try for a bit longer, then wind it down. They have seen enough.

It is late afternoon by now. The tired candidates Mr Vuka and Mr Rulali have had a gruelling day. They complete the candidate survey and leave the premises. Mr Rulali uses his private car, Mr Vuka with his bodyguards and blue-light brigade. There is chaos in the parking lot for several minutes as the entourage makes its exit.

Being a president requires high levels of analysis , complex thinking, ambiguity and rational decision making.

The results of the psychometrics are written up over the next day or two. The results are clear. Select Mr Vuka as president and the consequences will be grave. Being a president requires high levels of analysis , complex thinking, ambiguity and rational decision making. Most the tests indicate that Mr Vuka’s thinking in these areas is compromised. His abstract reasoning, problem solving and ability to take a wide view are all marred by illogical thinking and poor consequential reasoning. In addition his interpersonal style is also flawed. He struggles to listen, has a short fuse, is too wrapped up in his own dramas, acting impulsively to jump from one crisis to the next. “Not presidential material”, notes the author in the conclusion of the report.

Mr Rulali’s selection indicates greater merit. High intelligence, solid strategist and fine analysis. Can sometimes become immobilised by his reflection and cautions. Good with people, listens well and easily connects with others. Lacks a level of self-confidence which can hold him back. He can struggle to have tough conversations, tending to sweeten difficult encounters rather than be confrontational, papering over the cracks. On balance however there is more going for him than not going against him. “Recommended with caution” is the final decision, followed by small list of important, but manageable, development areas.

If only, life and politics, worked like that.

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Author: Dr Hilton Rudnick