Arnold Kling  

Is Obama a type P?

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President Obama comes across to me as the Master of the Mixed Signal. It seems unclear how he will set priorities or where he stands on several key issues. I think this goes beyond a calculated effort to try to appear all things to all people. I suspect that he genuinely is a type P, in Myers-Briggs terms. Let me elaborate.

This Myers-Briggs site explains type P as follows:


A Judging (J) style approaches the outside world WITH A PLAN and is oriented towards organizing one's surroundings, being prepared, making decisions and reaching closure and completion.

A Perceiving (P) style takes the outside world AS IT COMES and is adopting and adapting, flexible, open-ended and receptive to new opportunities and changing game plans.

There is a classic joke about a rabbi who is asked to resolve a dispute. The first disputant makes his case, and the rabbi says, "You're right." The other disputant makes his case, and the rabbi says, "You're right." A member of the audience complains, "They can't both be right." After a pause, the rabbi says, "You're right, too!"

The rabbi is classic type P.

In Adam Michaelson's memoir of his days as a marketing manager for Countrywide, he describes one experience in which he and another manager were assigned to be co-leaders of a project. The first time that they get together, it becomes clear that each had been led to expect broad authority, with the result that their conceptions of their jobs overlap and contradict with one another. It is reasonable to presume that the boss who set them up in this was was a type P. It seems to me that President Obama is creating potential issues of this type with so many heavyweight appointees, particularly in domestic policy.

Suppose that you have a project that is in trouble. If the project leader is a type J, she will call a meeting to whip people into shape. She will settle questions, re-affirm deadlines, and get people to commit to tasks. The team members who are J's will leave the meeting relieved and energized. The team members who are P's will leave the meeting feeling railroaded and bullied.

If the project leader is a type P (not as common for project managers), she will call a meeting to gather information. She will find out what everyone's concerns are and compile a list of issues. She will announce her intentions to take the input from the meeting and, working with other senior leaders, put together a revised work plan. The team members who are P's will feel relieved and reassured. The team members who are J's will feel demoralized and directionless.

For a J, the most dysfunctional way to run a meeting is to re-open for discussion late in the meeting an issue that was supposedly settled at the very beginning. For a P, the most dysfunctional way to run a meeting is to make decisions before all aspects of the problem have been thoroughly considered.

The strength of a J manager is clarity. Decisions are clear, and changes of strategy are communicated formally and explicitly. Subordinates know their roles and responsibilities. However, the J manager may stick with a bad plan for too long, just for the sake of sticking to the plan. Moreover, a J manager may cut himself off from useful input, because he lacks the patience to encourage dissent or "thinking out loud." Some descriptions of President Bush make him sound like a J. Within the organization, unhappiness comes from those who believe that their point of view is being suppressed.

The P manager's strengths and weaknesses are the opposite. It is more likely that views outside the consensus will be heard. Plans will be more fluid, with few qualms about changing course. In fact, subordinates will often be caught by surprise, because the P manager will have changed direction without bothering to inform everyone. Subordinates may not even be able to tell when a decision has been made. You might leave a meeting believing that your point of view has won out, but in fact the P manager has not really committed himself. People with different points of view can each believe that they are aligned with the leader, so that they feel betrayed when decisions do not go as expected. Within the organization, unhappiness comes from those who believe that the failure to get their way reflects the malevolence and political ruthlessness of their rivals.

Although the generalization does not hold completely, economists are stereotypically P's. Harry Truman's "God, send me a one-handed economist" is a classic expression of a J's frustration with P's. Relative to a random sample of people, I am probably a P. However, I suspect that in a roomful of economists, I would seem like a J.

If I am right about my speculation concerning personality types, I would expect economists to get along better with Obama than with Bush. But even when you are a P yourself, the weaknesses of a P management style ultimately can prove demoralizing. A P manager needs a J subordinate who keeps things buttoned up, ensuring that decisions are made and communicated.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
johnleemk writes:

I think Rahm Emanuel is supposed to be the J to Obama's P.

Babinich writes:

Barack Obama: the Zen master of the conjunction "but"...

Caliban Darklock writes:

As I recall, it was the mulla Nasrudin who declared "I believe you are right!" to both plaintiff and defendant in a trial. I wonder whether the midrash came first.

Steve Sailer writes:

Obama is by nature a writer, which is very P rather than J.

cm writes:

Although I regard this stuff as psuedoscience (I could make a number of random profiles and, when asked to choose among them, you will), there's been discussion on a personality typing forum: here and here

MHodak writes:

A better description of Obama may be a "multiple hypothesis" personality, which describes leaders like Washington and Rockefeller. You can google "Multiple Working Hypotheses"

Isaac K. writes:

Ultimately, I find the idea of having a P as president with a set of solid appointees rather encouraging.
The more I look at him, the more he strikes me as an intellectual with curiousity, not a pure idealogue. This is distinctly important for diplomacy - the ability to perceive the two sides to an issue - that both parties can be functionally "right" on their own terms, but a compromise needs to be reached in the intermediate stage.

What bothered me most about Mccain was that he seemed such a hardline J that nearly any outside opinion was unwelcome.
While failure to compromise ones morals and principles is a fantastic thing in a leader, failure to listen and weigh alternatives with an open mind is not.

Zac writes:

With the authority vested in me by being a classic P (very prototypical INTP), I approve of this message. I would guess ESFp. And he must have had some strong judging personalities around him on his ascension - the P type isn't well known for his ability to mastermind a rise to power.

Dan Weber writes:

I'm pretty sure I'm a P:

Someone will explain their point-of-view to me and I will say "okay."
I mean "I have heard what you said."
They think I mean "I agree with what you have said."

I agree with the analysis of Obama being a P, and agree with the communication problems it can create. Like johnleemk said, hopefully Rahm Emmanuel will help take care of the J end.

Troy Camplin writes:

I"m a P who often comes off as a J. While I still have deep reservations about Obama and the direction (I think) he will take the country in, particularly in economics, I found myself surprised to be relieved that Bush was finally gone.

Zubon writes:

The team members who are J's will feel demoralized and directionless.

I do not know about the other Js in the room, but that meeting is a satisfactory situation for me. We did not resolve anything, but the resolution is scheduled. There will be a plan. Until then, I can work on the parts of my task list that are least likely to be made useless by a change in plans.

Of course, if most of the managers are Ps, I will be used to getting no resolution because they keep talking about it without ever giving us a final decision. But then I will have been demoralized and directionless the whole time anyway, no change.

Erich writes:
WCU1234 writes:

I am definitely a type P with a little bit of type J in there when situations are tight. I think that having a type P as President is a good thing. We need a President who can change and alternate their plans and thoughts with the ever changing economy. Obviously something we have been doing isn't working so it is refreshing to know that we, as Americans, could possibly get back on the right track. I think Obama is listening to and doing what is right for the majority of America. I do think that one downside to being a type P is that a person like that can come across as a people pleaser who gives false hopes. I think that a lot can be said but it doesn't mean anything unless it's done.

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