This was a real question posed to me recently, while the USA’s 2016 presidential campaign was hitting peak insanity.
The questioner, in a (fleeting) moment of sympathy for what he interpreted as front and centre mental health issues in Donald Trump, contemplated whether he was, therefore, being unkind by condemning his behaviour.
The guy’s not well, was his contention.
Herein lies a dilemma. Professional guidelines discourage mental health practitioners (e.g. me) from diagnosing those we have not dealt with personally. And of course, for those with whom we have dealt personally we are bound by far stricter privacy protocols. We must never speak about them at all, unless subpoenaed.
Consequently, most commentary about the mental health of public figures such as Donald Trump is left to amateurs. Joe Public is free and clear to propose whatever diagnosis he fancies, so the world is awash with random opinions. Some are wildly off-target. Others are piercingly wise.
All the while, those who have good reason to know the difference feel muzzled into silence by professional properness.
So let’s look at it this way instead…
If the US Presidency were a regular job
Criteria. Every regular job has criteria. Before inviting candidates to apply for a job, Occupational Psychologists draw up application criteria. For example, an accountancy degree is required to apply for work as an accountant, or a carpentry certificate for a job as a joiner. Or extensive successful international political experience to work as a President.
Then there are performance criteria. These are all about how competently a person will actually perform the tasks that their application criteria qualify them to do.
Many performance criteria are behavioural. For example, taking a constructive approach to problem-solving, attending to important details, or being honest and respectful with colleagues.
Performance criteria are absolutely critical, because it’s perfectly possible to earn an accounting degree and then be a dodgy accountant in the real world, or to have a carpentry certificate but not care about the quality of your work.
Any schmuck can be President
The problem is that one of the grandest of all roles in the free world, President of the United States, doesn’t appear to have application criteria, let alone performance criteria. Anyone can apply!
Finger on the nuclear launch codes? Got at least one (petite) finger? Great! Come on down, any and all.
Oh, as long as 40+ years ago your mother birthed you within certain latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Yep, as long as you had the correct geography at 40 weeks gestation.
Occupational Psychologists everywhere are pummelling their own foreheads wildly at this point. The criteria used to select people into roles must be genuinely and substantially predictive of good performance in those roles. Otherwise you are wasting your time.
The locale in which a person was birthed is not one of those criteria. It predicts diddly squat that matters to performance as Leader Of The Free World 40+ years later.
So as it stands, these are the meagre criteria for President of the USA:
APPLICATION CRITERIA: Born in the USA
PERFORMANCE CRITERIA: None
Let’s try a little harder. Let’s at least imagine what some proper criteria for the job of President, USA, might look like…
- Degrees (various) in law, economics and science – for overseeing financial, social and environmental stability for hundreds of millions of people in fast-moving local and global economies, and, well, for understanding lots of really complicated stuff.
- A long record of ethical and value-adding decision-making in business or politics, preferably both. A candidate should be able to demonstrate considerable contribution to their community across time, with positive outcomes vastly outshining the occasional cockup.
- Higher order interpersonal and diplomatic skills. For example, the use of gracious and respectful language with people from all walks of life, listening well, and speaking articulately and persuasively.
- A disciplined, objective and fair-minded thinking style. This is my personal favourite skillset, because it’s the foundation of true wisdom. There can be no more core skill for a president than the capacity to think objectively through complex or contentious issues, unencumbered by ego, bias or political pressure.
- Emotional resilience, balance and maturity. Being a senior politician garners a lot of disapproval. A very sturdy emotional makeup is needed to weather this. But too much sturdiness can make a person arrogant and unresponsive, even to critically important feedback. That’s where balance and maturity come in. A higher order capacity for self-reflection is essential.
What about mental health criteria?
The business world is cautious about screening applicants for regular jobs in this way, and rightly so. Especially since common experiences likes depression and anxiety have become medicalised.
However, there are professions in which mental stability is expected and essential. We demand that those in charge of our safety or wellbeing, such as educators, surgeons, police officers and pilots, have a steady, rational and ethical disposition. If they do not, there can be dire consequences.
We don’t want firearms, scalpels, large Boeings, or our children, in the hands of someone overtly unstable.
Should similar criteria apply to those wanting to become the leader of a democratic country, whether the US, here in Australia, or any other modern nation?
With my sensible Psychologist hat on, I nod a calm “Yes” to this question. In my off-duty sneakers I want to yell “D’ya think?!!” and rattle the asker by the shoulders.
Isn’t this all just too obvious?
The problem is that these requirements are so obvious to the reasonable mind – so Presidential Criteria 101 – that it might not cross enough reasonable minds to actually formalise them in law.
Do we really need to document the ways in which applicants for the highest office should demonstrate that they are of sound mind, and intellectually and interpersonally high-functioning?
Do we really have to spell out that applicants must not…
- Break the law. (e.g. Inciting violence, promoting hatred, grabbing people’s sexual parts, avoiding tax, stealing charity funds for personal use, etc.)
- Express overt racial, religious or gender prejudice, or display other kinds of distorted thinking.
- Speak so as to cause gross offense to others.
- Lie compulsively or repeatedly.
- Threaten, bully, intimidate or attack those who criticise or disagree.
Can’t we just presuppose a higher calibre of candidate than this? These are obvious exclusion behaviours, no?! A person displaying any one of them wouldn’t get a second interview as an administrative assistant in a library.
Another thing to look out for in politics in particular, is out of control ego. It’s a special problem in this profession because there are really only two ways to get to the top:
- Be earnestly and deeply committed to the good of society, highly capable, ethical, persistent and philosophically resilient.
- Be irrationally driven by narcissism, ego fracture, sociopathy, or other types of dysfunction that result in compulsive or aggressive behaviour that pushes other people out of the way.
Most folk with disposition #1 will, at some point in their career ascent, resign to safeguard their own sanity from those with disposition #2. Only a very special few make it through.
This is how the increasing concentration of people with disposition #2, that we see at the top of large political and corporate hierarchies, is created.
If political parties were to implement proper performance criteria for their top jobs, like most organisations do, I wonder how different the world might look? Could we have prevented the disturbing and dangerous situation we are caught up in today?
Tell me your thoughts…