What Does US-Israeli Nuclear Conflict Teach Us about Personality Differences?
Heightened tension between U.S. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu around the Iran nuclear threat stems from core differences between the two leaders, and between the countries they represent. I disagree, however, with Robert Einhorn, advisor to Obama’s Iran strategy, who stated in a recent NYT article that these two leaders have “two different approaches to dealing with Iran that today may be fundamentally irreconcilable.”
The two different approaches that Einhorn mentions and which are described in detail in the NYT article, are rooted personality differences that exist in individuals and are manifested in entire political systems and cultures. I see these every day in our work with leaders, teachers, negotiators, and parents.
Origninally discovered by clinical psychologist, Dr. Taibi Kahler, there are six distinct personality types that are present in all cultures worldwide. All six of these personality types exist within each of us in a preferred, set order. Of these, the two most likely to assume leadership positions are the Thinker and Persister.
The Thinker experiences the world through the perception of Thoughts. They prefer to approach problems and situations by applying reason, logic, and a pragmatic philosophy. They use strategies and information as their guide. They are persuaded by arguments that make logical sense and are well researched. Thinkers don’t see black or white – they see pros and cons, compromises and best-fit solutions. They are continually seeking to increase efficiency and effectiveness, and are willing to adjust strategies to improve outcomes.
The Persister experiences the world through the perception of Beliefs. They prefer to approach problems and situations by applying values, preferring a principled philosophy. They use belief systems as their guide. They are persuaded by arguments that appeal to their big-picture ideals. They see black and white, right and wrong. Compromise is failure. They continually seek to live and validate their belief systems to bring consistency between values and behaviors. Compromise is viewed as weak and amoral.
President Obama accesses his Thinker type a lot. The NYT article describes his history of rational, strategic, researched, pragmatic, methodical, and measured approaches to the Iran’s nuclear threat. Netanyahu accesses his Persister type more, preferring an explicit, all-or-nothing approach based on trust, intent and capacity.
Is one approach better than the other? No. They are both important. However, a lot depends how you measure success. And this is where things get tricky. Both the Thinker and Persister are capable of seeing the forest for the trees, finding higher-order solutions, and empathizing with perspectives other than their own, when in a healthy space, thinking clearly and feeling validated for their basic perspectives. Both can engage in constructive conflict and pursue win-win solutions. When in distress each sees success very differently because they succumb to the psychological struggles that are never verbalized, yet show up in their ineffective approaches to conflict.
Thinkers in distress seek to control data, information, and outcomes. They falsely believe that more data, more analysis, better explanations, and more time will solve the problem. They waste precious energy trying to overanalyze and logically convince others that they have the smartest solution. By doing so they alienate Persisters who are looking to them to show courage and stand for something – anything!
Persisters in distress push their beliefs, seeking self-justification for their value-systems, polarizing people into all or nothing, back or white, “with me or against me” camps. This validates their belief that they are right and others are wrong. By doing so they alienate Thinkers who are frustrated with their illogical conclusions and irrational arguments.
Behind the Thinker’s distress is masked fear of losing control and a need to appear competent and knowledgeable. Behind the Persister’s distress is a masked fear of not being able to protect others and fulfill their obligations and responsibilities to others.
America’s success has hinged on it’s ability to balance Thinker innovation and creativity with Persister commitment and dedication to ideals of freedom. My perspective is that our two-party political system in the United States has taken on these same two personalities. Democrats tend to favor compromise, applying rational arguments to finding best-fit solutions, and succumb to analysis paralysis when crisis hits, sometimes abandoning core principles. Republicans tend to favor higher principles, applying value-based arguments to solve problems, and succumb to “my way or the highway” when crisis hits, abandoning logic. Of course, this is an oversimplification, yet the similarities are worth noting.
The Persister-Thinker struggle permeates our two-party political system, our educational system, our work cultures, and our geo-political conflicts. It stems from our inherent and god-given differences as human beings. The solution isn’t to vilify these differences and make “the other” the enemy.
Kahler has shown that every human being has all six personality types WITHIN him or her, arranged in a preferred set order. So while we may prefer a certain perceptual world view, we are all capable of seeing “the other” by looking inside ourselves. By vilifying a particular political party or leader, we simultaneously justify our own favorite world view and create distance from a part of ourselves.
The key to successful negotiation begins with being able to fully understand, empathize, and appreciate the perspective of the other person. Thinkers would do well to stop arguing with Persisters about what makes sense, and instead seek to understand the burden of trying to protect others from danger and respect the courage it takes to fight for what you believe in every day. Persisters would do well to stop questioning the integrity of the Thinkers, and begin curiously gathering reliable and unbiased information about what’s going on, start recognizing the discipline that it takes to change course when there is compelling evidence to do so. We would all do well to remember that we have all these types WITHIN us.
By seeking first to understand, respect, and appreciate each others’ perspective, then working towards solutions that meet the deepest underlying needs, longer lasting and more effective solutions are possible. In doing so we also more fully integrate the positive qualities within ourselves. This is authentic leadership.
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