In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Leadership Personality Characteristics and Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overview: When Are Leaders Important?
  • Textbooks and Encyclopedia/Handbook Articles
  • Leader Personality Assessments Using Multiple Elements of Personality
  • Leader Trait Assessment (LTA) Multivariate Methodology
  • Assessing Leaders’ Personality through Analysis of Social Media and Other Internet-Based Texts
  • Computer Scoring of Psychological Characteristics
  • Anthologies: Particular Leaders and Groups

International Relations Leadership Personality Characteristics and Foreign Policy
David G. Winter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0256


When wars are declared or avoided, crises created or resolved, or peace and cooperation flourish instead of destruction and terrorism, diplomats, journalists, and the public often explain them as resulting from personality (and other psychological) characteristics of individual actors. Academic analysts, however, are trained in situational, structural, and historical perspectives and thus are skeptical of such explanations. After all, without the German defeat in World War I and the later support of rich industrialists, Adolf Hitler might well have remained a failed artist, living in poverty in Vienna. Even his racial policies echoed themes common in 19th-century German thought. On the other hand, Robert Kennedy once remarked that during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, US president Kennedy’s close advisors were “bright, able, dedicated . . . probably the brightest kind of group that you could get together under those circumstances”; then adding ominously that “if six of them had been President of the US, I think that the world might have been blown up.” Systematic academic study of leaders’ personalities and foreign policy charts a course between these two perspectives: in novel, ambiguous, complex, unstable, or conflicted situations, leaders can have important effects on foreign policy processes and outcomes—through their goals, impulsivity versus thoughtfulness, styles of seeking and interpreting “information,” and emotional responses to symbols. The psychological concept of “personality” includes several different kinds of “variables” or dimensions of individual difference: traits or consistencies of style; cognitions or beliefs, values, cognitive complexity, heroes, and self-concept; motives or goals conscious and nonconscious (or implicit). Underlying these three aspects of personality, however, are social contexts (culture, social class, history, gender, family structure, religion, institutions), which reflect past influences on personality development and present channels through which the other aspects are expressed. Since political leaders are not usually available for assessment with the usual tools and instruments of personality psychology, analysts must rely on alternative techniques, such as psychologically oriented interpretations of known biographical facts, systematic content analysis of verbal or written texts (speeches, interviews, written works, etc.), or assembling pooled judgments of experts or historians. Many of the case studies and more systematic research cited in this bibliography focus on leaders’ personalities rather than their foreign policies. Armed with an understanding of the elements of personality, however, researchers can readily extrapolate from the research literature to understand and predict foreign policy behaviors.

General Overview: When Are Leaders Important?

Explanations of foreign policy orientations and outcomes in terms of leaders’ personalities raise several questions and problems, which are discussed in the citations below: What are the limits of “personality explanations,” and how do they contrast with structural or situational interpretations? Greenstein 1987 is an excellent introduction to the topic of leader characteristics and influence on policy, by specifying conditions under which leaders’ personalities matter, and describing the steps in the process of explaining leaders’ actions. Hermann, et al. 2001 extends the discussion, proposing several different types of leaders. Byman and Pollack 2001 gives specific historical examples of the importance of personality in affecting outcomes. Dyson 2014 discusses the roots of psychobiography in US intelligence efforts during World War II.

  • Byman, D. L., and K. M. Pollack. “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In.” International Security 25.4 (2001): 107–146.

    DOI: 10.1162/01622880151091916

    Discusses conceptual issues, objections, and specific hypotheses about relationship of personality to international relations outcomes, and cites examples of Hitler, Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Napoleon, and several 20th-century Middle Eastern leaders.

  • Dyson, S. B. “Origins of the Psychological Profiling of Political Leaders: The US Office of Strategic Services and Adolf Hitler.” Intelligence and National Security 29.5 (2014): 654–674.

    DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2013.834217

    Traces the origins of studying psychological aspects of political leaders to World War II efforts of the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) to understand Adolf Hitler (Langer 1972 and Murray 1943, both cited under Studies Based on Specific Psychological or Psychiatric Concepts and Theories), and discusses differences between them and their influence on subsequent psychobiography.

  • Greenstein, F. I. Personality and Politics: Problems of Evidence, Inference, and Conceptualization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400858477

    A classic treatment of concepts, issues, and problems. Chapter 2 carefully examines the conditions in which individual personality can affect political outcomes. Chapter 3 distinguishes phenomenology (what is to be explained) and dynamics (psychological processes causing the observed phenomenology), and genesis (antecedents, usually in childhood, of the dynamics).

  • Hermann, M. G., T. Preston, B. Korany, and T. M. Shaw. “Who Leads Matters: The Effects of Powerful Individuals.” International Studies Review 3.2 (2001): 83–131.

    DOI: 10.1111/1521-9488.00235

    Discusses conditions under which a single prominent leader can become a “decision unit” in foreign policy. The authors expand the traditional distinction between “crusader” and “pragmatist” leader styles, proposing a typology of eight leadership styles based on challenging versus respecting constraints, openness to information, and problem versus relationship focus. Several illustrations and four major case studies provide illustrations of how these styles can affect foreign policy.

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