Reading David Brooks’ recent column on President Barack Obama in the New York Times, “The ESPN Man,” I was reminded of what an enigma our 44th president can be.
Naturally, when Obama started running for president I became curious about what his personality type might be. His dominant instinct was pretty clear; I felt right away that he was the Navigating (i.e., social) subtype of whatever Ennea-type he was. But the Ennea-type was harder for me to identify. He had a cool composure that made me think about the Nine, but as he started debating John McCain I started to see a combative style that was inconsistent with most of the Nines I knew and had coached. And, while I know many very intelligent Nines, there was also a crispness and precision to Obama’s thinking that seemed in contrast to the way most Nines tend to amble toward a conclusion.
I even started to wonder if Obama was an Eight. He seemed to have the directness of thought and expression that was indicative of Eights, but Obama displayed a personal reticence that was inconsistent with Eights. Some have suggested that Obama is a Three, but for the life of me I simply can’t correlate Obama in affect or behavior to any of the Threes I’ve ever worked with. No other type felt like a reasonable fit and, for a while, I gave up on trying to figure it out.
At least, that is, until the topic came up over tapas in Madrid one evening. Brazilian Enneagram teacher and former IEA president Uranio Paes said that he had just finished Obama’s memoir and came to the conclusion that Obama was a Navigating Five. At first, I couldn’t believe it–the charming, broad-smiled, hoops-shooting president a Five? Fives are supposed to be nerdy, bookish, and nebbishy, right? But within moments it occurred to me that the charming, broad-smiled, soccer-playing Brazilian seated next to me was also a Navigating Five (and one who was often misidentified as a Nine), and that he might be on to something.
Now it all started to make sense–the article I read during the 2008 campaign that focused on Obama’s behind-the-scenes aloofness and interpersonal discomfort; the calm, logical analysis of every issue; the glimpses of intellectual arrogance; the maddeningly slow rate of speech when speaking off extemporaneously; the laser-like precision in his word choices; the ongoing references to Mr. Spock in the media….
No alternative hypothesis has been as compelling.
I know all the objections, of course; I’ve floated this idea on Facebook and been battered for it.
People tend to make the following objections:
1. Obama is a riveting orator on the big stage. Yes, he is, but these are highly artificial environments and training (of which Obama has had much) can make one a much better orator. Contrast the big-stage Obama with the spontaneous, press conference/interview Obama and you will see that he is much more controlled, precise, and (too me) maddeningly deliberative and slow in his responses.
2. Fives can’t run a business. Tell it to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. Tell it to the numerous Type Five CTOs and vice presidents I have coached in the business world. This objection is simply not accurate.
3. Fives retreat from the world, they don’t want to be in politics. Besides being just a silly argument from incredulity based on experience with a few very introverted Fives, this objection is belied by what I believe is Obama’s Navigating instinct. Navigators want to be out in the world and the ambivalence about this caused by the desire to connect to the world (driven by the instinct) and reluctance to do so (driven by the Five’s strategy of striving to be detached) is evident in Obama.
4. Obama talks a lot about hope, so he must be a Seven. No, he must not.
5. Obama is ambitious, so he must be a Three. No, he must not.
6. I know someone who met him who knows the Enneagram very well and that person said he really seems like a Nine. Besides such claims simply being hearsay, Navigating Fives are often mistyped as Nines.
But it is easy to build pretty much any just-so story using carefully selected anecdotal evidence. What process should we use when trying to evaluate a public figure’s type?*
As I’ve written before, it is important to be rigorous and apply some models when trying to determine type rather than gather a bag full of anecdotes highlighting superficial traits. For me, the models are the nine strategies and the common derailers for each type.
As Claudio Naranjo points out in “Character and Neurosis,” the Ennea-types are adaptational strategies, habitual patterns of thought, feeling, and action used for solving problems. I always look for what strategy seems to be in use when the individual is trying to solve problems, especially when under stress.
Is Obama’s problem solving strategy “striving to be outstanding,” as it is with Threes? Does he emphasize his achievements and image when under stress? Does he try to model widely admired attributes to demonstrate his worth? I simply see no substantive evidence of that. Obama has admitted to having a large ego, but it is far more associated with his intellect than with his accomplishments or other personal attributes.
It also seems to me that Obama’s strategy for solving problems is not the Nine’s “striving to be peaceful,” despite the cry from many on the left that he caves in to the Republicans and appeases them. It seems to me that Slate.com reporter John Dickerson’s description of Obama’s logic- and reason-driven desire to understand all points of view and play the political long game is much more accurate than the conflict avoidance often seen in Nines. (See “The Logic of Empathy: How Obama is like Spock.”)
In fact, all the evidence seems to point to the fact that Obama uses the Five’s strategy of striving to be detached in order to deal with problems. He retreats into his mind; deliberates through all the possible scenarios, angles, and factors; and returns with a cold, analytical, data-driven response.
(While it is unfair–and anecdotal at best–to point to one image when illustrating an Ennea-type, I refer the reader to the photo of Obama in the White House Situation Room during the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. Is it possible for someone to be more alone in a small, crowded room during such a stressful time? The photo screams “Five!”)
The second model I use is the list of performance derailers for the Ennea-types. I originally put this list together in about 2004 when I started noticing similar tendencies of “going off track” in my clients of the various types. I often tell people that if you really want to know what type someone is, refer to the derailers–our Ennea-type is most obvious when we go off track. This list for all the types is available in Appendix D of “Awareness to Action.”
It is the derailers that came to mind when reading Brooks’ column that inspired this post. Brooks writes that “Critics are always saying that Obama is too cool and detached, arrogant and aloof.” This does seem to be the common assessment of Obama’s shortcomings: detached, unemotional, intellectually arrogant, reluctant to step forward and take action.
Let’s see how these criticisms compare to the list of derailers for the Five. Remember, we are talking about what happens to someone when they go off track (or act maladaptively), not how they are typically or in their most shining moments.
1. Thinking too much, doing too little: Preferring analysis to action and allowing that preference to affect performance.
Yes, Obama got Bin Laden and saved GM, but I think this is a tendency he shows on occasion and it is a common accusation made by his critics.
2. Not nurturing relationships: Neglecting to make contact with others and identify needs; avoidance of networking and social connection.
This is also a common complaint about Obama, whether it be press reporters on the campaign plane or Republican leaders in Congress. Obama’s golf outing with Boehner was so notable because it was so rare.
3. Unaware of their surroundings and their own impact: Constant inward focus leads to not noticing the effects of your actions (or lack of action) on those around you.
This derailer was at the heart of Obama’s struggles in getting his health care reforms pushed through. His lack of active leadership on the issue was a great handicap; one that he never seemed to realize.
4. Needing to show off intellect: Showing off knowledge; too much attention to detail, hyper-verbosity in areas of expertise; “know-it-all-ism.”
In his book, “Confidence Men,” Ron Suskind is very eloquent on how Obama frustrated advisors early on by trying demonstrate that he knew more about their area of expertise than they did; in other places, Obama has talked about how he usually knows the other side’s arguments better than they do.
5. Not sharing information: Not communicating with others either through neglect or because you simply don’t want to share.
Again, I think an argument can be made for this as an Obama tendency when under stress; with healthcare being a prime example. Obama is famously unhurried in his decisions to make announcements and share information about his decisions; generally choosing to do so on his timeline.
Some might argue that this is just cherry-picking anecdotes to satisfy criteria, but while it is easy to find examples of Obama going off track in these ways it is much more difficult to find correlations to the other lists of derailers. Therefore, based on two metrics–the strategies and the derailers–I feel comfortable (on a provisional basis, of course) believing that Obama is a Five.
*I’ve written before about how all such speculations are provisional and mere opinions. Obviously, since I have never met Obama, I can’t be sure of his Ennea-type. Even if I had met him, I would still hold my assessment provisionally. I go through this exercise because I think it is useful and illustrative, not to attempt to be definitive.
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