Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva on Leadership Analysis and Political Psychology

In order to make the best possible foreign policy decisions, policy makers need to understand their counterparts and have an idea of how they may behave and react in a variety of situations. Inaccessible leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and those whose inner circle are hard to penetrate like Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel before him, present real challenges in this area. As such, leadership analysis is becoming increasingly important, particularly as part of intelligence analysis, in understanding our adversaries.

We reached out to Dr. Kenneth Dekleva to get a better understanding of leadership analysis, how it is performed, and its applications. Dr. Dekleva is Associate Professor and Director of Psychiatry-Medicine Integration at UTSW Medical Center, Dallas, TX, where he holds the McKinsey Foundation I Chair in Psychiatry. During 2002-2016, he served (largely overseas) as a senior US diplomat and regional medical officer/psychiatrist. Since then, he published (In The Cipher Brief, The Hill, and 38 North) and presented (in government and academic settings) leadership profiles of various leaders, including Vladimir Putin, Xinping, and Kim Jong-un.

Q: What is Leadership Analysis and Political Psychology and what questions does it seek to answer?

A: Leadership analysis (and political psychology) are a subset of the field of intelligence analysis.  It was first developed in 1943 by Dr. Walter Langer (a psychiatrist who consulted with the OSS) to develop a psychological profile of Hitler to develop an understanding of Hitler’s personality, political behavior, motivation, and leadership style.  From the late 1960s onward, this discipline was further developed by Dr. Jerrold Post (a psychiatrist at the CIA) to develop similar profiles for national security decision makers, including the President, Vice President, CIA Director, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and other senior officials, to assist in crisis decision-making, diplomacy, negotiations, and summit meetings.  A high point of this type of analysis involved President Carter’s use of such profiles during the successful Camp David peace negotiations between President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin.  Today, as then, relevant parts of leadership analysis may be included in the President’s Daily Brief. The fact that such analysis has stood the test of time, and has resources dedicated to its use, speaks for itself.  In today’s complex world, where our adversaries such as Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, and Hassan Rouhani apply hybrid warfare, asymmetrical warfare, disinformation, propaganda, cyber warfare, and a whole of government approach to countering the national security interests of the United States – and its allies – such leadership analysis is more relevant than ever.

Q: What is the methodology of this type of analysis? What are some of the aspects of the person that are analyzed and what sort of data is used?

A: Leadership analysis has traditionally – in its use by the US government’s intelligence community – relied heavily upon psychobiographical approaches, whereas academic inquiries have tended to utilize other domains such as [hypothetical] psychological testing, psycholinguistic analysis, operational code analysis, cognitive analytics, and [remote] IQ predictions.  More recently, there are novel technologies being developed which utilize forecasting, AI, deep learning, and natural language processing to analyze large amounts of data regarding a given leader.  Many of these latter technologies have arisen from the private-sector.  An analogy might be the application of “Money Ball” to leadership analysis.  Leadership analysis also requires a human element.  It depends upon empathy for a given leader, and in many cases, trying to delve into the psyches of leaders who may be cruel, evil, and extremely Machiavellian.  It also demands deep cross-cultural understanding of the historical, political and social environment which gave rise to a given leader.  Therefore, context is critical.  Leadership analysis is less about Freud and more about Sun Tzu.

Photo: US Department of State

Q: What are some concrete, practical ways in which Leadership Analysis and Political Psychology assist policy makers and other national security decision makers?

A: Leadership analysis relies upon multiple sources of information to develop profiles of world leaders.  It relies upon analysis of primary source materials, including a given leader’s writings, speeches, social media activity, video clips, interviews, and photos.  Secondary source material utilizes articles, books, interviews with those who have worked with, or who are close to the leader, and other types of intelligence data.  It may – especially important as many leaders are in their 60s and 70s – also rely upon medical data regarding leaders’ health.  Leadership analysis seeks to understand a given leader’s personality style, traits, strengths and weaknesses.  It seeks to understand whom the leader listens to and trusts.  Who influences the leader?  Most importantly, leadership analysis must not rely solely upon mere analysis of psychology and personality.  It must examine governance outcomes, legacy, environmental and social metrics, and whether or not a given leader has improved their people’s and constituents’ quality of life during their rule.  This is increasingly critical in understanding not only adversary leaders, but in understanding leaders in frontier and emerging economies, where leadership responses to climate change, pandemics, migration, and natural disasters are increasingly important drivers of policy and its political outcomes.

Q: What is the Goldwater Rule and what led to its development? What safeguards does it provide and what are potential negative outcomes of it?  What are the potential effects of the Goldwater Rule on classified analyses requested by policy makers?

A: The Goldwater Rule arose from a lawsuit filed by the late Senator Barry Goldwater, after a group of psychiatrists had written public comments about his personality prior to the 1964 election.  In the early 1970s, the American Psychiatric Association refined its code of ethics, stating that it is unethical for psychiatrists to offer a professional opinion on a public official unless they have conducted an examination and obtained informed consent to make such statements.  Negative outcomes can include embarrassment (to both the author of the profile as well as to the profession), lawsuits, ethics complaints, licensing board complaints, Internet trolling, harassment, and even death threats.  Note that even classified profiles can be leaked or otherwise see the light of day when they are declassified.  Benefits – especially in the case of profiles developed for the intelligence community or policy makers – can include a better and more nuanced understanding of complex, opaque adversary leaders.  The Goldwater Rule has received heightened interest in recent years due to critical articles, interviews, and books published by psychiatrists – of whom Dr. Bandy Lee is the most prominent – about President Trump.  I have repeatedly and publicly stated that – for an American psychiatrist – publishing political psychology profiles of ANY American politician is unwise and fraught with peril.  There are simply too many biases involved and it’s all too easy for such profiles to become politicized.  But this practice is likely here to stay, and such analyses have become a standard part of opposition (“oppo”) research.  In this sense, I have argued that the Goldwater Rule deserves revision.

Q: Beyond the national security and political realm, are there commercial applications for Leadership Analysis and Political Psychology?

A: Potential commercial applications of leadership analysis include the work of contractors in partnership with the national security community, aligned with the traditional use of such analytics in developing leadership profiles, as well as companies such as Stratfor, XK Group, McKinsey, Barings, ERI, The Chertoff Group, The Crumpton Group, and others.  But there are likely other commercial and private-sector applications.  Investors, hedge funds, private-equity companies, and various corporations possess an interest in understanding leaders whom they may do business with, or in countries such as frontier economies and emerging markets.  Leadership analysis may assist such entities – with important equities at stake – in managing risk, due diligence, social/environmental metrics, and risks to a company’s reputation/brand.  The field will likely see increased use and optimization, with applications involving a combination of deep learning, AI analytics, and intelligence analysis throughout the private sector.  One can expect to witness more public sector and private sector partnerships in this regard as well.  This is true of foreign companies as well as American companies, especially companies and investors with a global reach.  The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the above-noted changes and economic potential for private sector individuals and organizations.

The views expressed here are entirely Dr. Dekleva’s own and do not represent the official views of the US government, the U.S. Department of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.