Profiles in Discord: Leadership Analysis with Dr. Ken Dekleva

In this week’s episode, co-hosts A’ndre and Ryan speak to Dr. Kenneth Dekleva about his work in  leadership analysis and what exactly that is. Dr. Dekleva discusses how leadership profiles are created, and how different agencies like the CIA and the State Department have used them in the past to advance U.S. foreign policy goals. We then dig into three unique leadership profiles in particular: China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Dr. Dekleva reveals what the U.S. got wrong about Putin and how the Russian leader has maintained his political resilience. We then discuss how Kim Jong Un’s leadership style and personality reflects his grandfather Kim Il Sung, and how his childhood may have contributed to his dictatorial tendencies. Dr. Dekleva reveals why he believes Xi Jinping is one of the world’s most formidable leaders today, and how Xi has managed to weave his personal and political narrative together to wield power. We conclude by talking about potential future adversarial leaders, and what makes these leaders ‘good’ at being dictators.

You can check out Dr. Dekleva’s work here.

On leadership analysis:

  • “To cite the work of Dr. Gerald Post at the CIA… What he did is he built a multidisciplinary team following the model of Dr. Langer, with the group of psychologists, anthropologists, physicians, leadership analysists, linguists, other types of analysists, to gather all the different types of data that go into a leadership profile, and these profiles were developed for the intelligence committees.”

On Reliance on Profiles by Senior Officials:

  • “But when I got out of government, and I can share with you and the audience, that there is a very high demand of for this type of nuance and understanding that goes beyond the mere biographical facts that are known about a leader. But trying to understand exactly their psychology, their leadership intention, their leadership style, how they make decisions, who they trust, trying to make predictions. And you’re trying to mitigate risk, especially when you’re in high level associations, such as Vladimir Putin of Russia or Xi Jinping of China or Kim Jong Un, or Bashar al-Assad. Our leaders want to have all the information they can have to both mitigate risk and give them an edge in negotiation.”

On Contributions to Leadership Profiles:

  • “It’s a team sport, and that’s critical… I talk to a lot of people who are in that space if you will— intelligence analysists, historians, political scientists, international relations of folks, people who are in and out of the government, other medical colleagues—to often get a fresh set of eyes to make sure that a profile doesn’t have the biases that could hinder its application and utility.”

On painting an accurate portrait of the leader:

  • “It’s easy to be wrong, it’s easy to have too much hubris. That’s not helpful. Even the risk when you put all the experts together, and get all these pieces, you can still be wrong. You can get a group think bias that creeps in. So, you always have to be mindful of that and take a step back.”

On gathering nonpublic information:

  • “That’s a treasure-trove of data: how the leader sees himself and his colleagues, and the issues that are important to the leader. In Putin’s case, it was fortuitous that early-on there was a lot of material available. And if you read it carefully, it’s still full of jewels and diamonds. With another leader, with Xi Jinping for example, that 2000 interview which is pretty obscure and hard to get…I found fascinating because it’s a fairly lengthy interview. But with Kim Jong Un, it was very challenging because Kim Jong Un had never met a foreign leader that we’re aware of until 2018. And the only other outsider he had met was the famous basketball star Dennis Rodman.”
  • “As you know from the media, these leaders get called many names ‘Psycho’, ‘Thug’, ‘Dictator’, in this type of analysis, that’s really not helpful.”
  • “Part of training is to develop empathy and understanding difficult people and in this case, leaders who have done horrible things. These are all the leaders we’ve talked about, they’re ruthless and in some cases done ruthless and barbaric things. One has to put aside one’s own emotions and feelings and try to understand them through a different prism.”

On how foreign countries conduct leadership analyses:

  •  “One of the profiles I published about President Putin of Russia a couple years ago was translated into Russian and they edited and cut out the parts they didn’t like and added some pictures and the subtitle I think was ‘American psychiatrist praises Putin’s leadership style’ or something like that, I’m paraphrasing the Russian. So, they have their own uses of profiling those to highlight their own leaders.”
  • “I think one should praise the North Koreans, Russians, and Chinese. They excel at long term strategy—what we call playing the long game.”
  • “The North Koreans very well-informed, contrary to often popular media opinion. They read everything that’s written about Chairman Kim Jong Un.”

On the Future of the Field:

  • “I think there’s going to be clear value added with novel technologies like artificial intelligence…but you still need the human factor.”

On Putin:

  • “Vladimir Putin is a very, very impressive leader. And in spite of mistakes that he’s made, in my opinion, I think Russian history will judge him kindly overall because he basically restored Russia’s greatness out of the doldrums of the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
  • “I think Vladimir Putin has a skillset that he brought to it of being a really outstanding intelligence officer, even though he retired at the rank of Lt. Colonel, his skillset goes beyond that.”
  • “At times, he’s shown a lot of tactical flexibility in what he does, and he certainly was an opportunist. He found himself at the right place at the right time and was able to extrapolate that and leverage that into more and more successes. But I think he’s a deep strategist and one of his long-term strategic goals, and I think we missed his, was his revenge and the desire to, as we would put it today, make Russia great again. But in Vladimir Putin’s mind, to restore Russia’s greatness.”
  • “We have to be careful not to over rely on elites because we can get it wrong.”
  • “Putin is remarkably resilient, and while it’s tempting for our analysists, such as myself and others in government, to think ‘Putin’s finally done, he’s met his match’, I’m not sure that’s the case. While his popularity has dropped into the 50% range, most American politicians would give their left arm for those numbers.”

On Kim Jong Un:

  • “Kim Jong Un, in my opinion, is a really unique North Korean leader. He’s more like his grandfather, than his father, although he shares the ruthlessness of both…I see him as more extroverted, like his grandfather.”
  • “Kim Jong Un is more like his grandfather—aspirational, a big dreamer, and I think that in spite of his current retrenchment because of COVID, and the sever economic difficulties, I’d think he’ll bounce back and I think he has big dreams of playing out as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, much as he did with in 2018 and 2019 where he stood toe-to-toe as an equal with President Trump, President Xi, President Putin, the Prime Minister of Singapore and other leaders.”
  • “He was a popular, friendly student who loved things that all middle school boys around the world love: video games, basketball, rap music. By all reports, he wasn’t a particularly diligent student but we have to wonder, as a psychiatrist, what the impact would be of being away at a boarding school for several years without ever being able to see your parents.”
  • “The interesting thing is his relationship with his sister, whom he trusts immensely. She’s held a variety of senior leadership roles in the organization and guidance department, which is kind of the ultimate power ministry within the North Korean government…The interesting thing is the role of women in leadership roles.”
  • “What I think of Kim Jong Un is that he’s slowly transitioning to a more modern leadership style. There are certain elements where one can follow that he is delegating more.”

On President Xi Jinping:

  • “Xi Jinping, in my mind, and it pains me to say this as an American and as a patriotic American, probably the most formidable leader in the world today.”
  • “Xi’s ability to weave his personal narrative with a political narrative of a Chinese dream of rejuvenation of the Chinese people along with the confusion in other national dreams and the Communist party dream is what makes him formidable. And his achievements.”
  • “Xi has a mixture of both pragmatism and hardcore ideology and belief in the party. I think the implicit question is ‘What does that make him do moving forward?’ One of the things that analysist have talked about with Xi Jinping is the idea of overreach or of pushing boundaries of being a disruptor. I don’t see him as a disruptor in that sense, in the way that perhaps many people see Vladimir Putin. I think that Xi will be seen as a disruptor but within a framework, where the de facto makes the rules. I don’t think they want to tear down the framework but adapt it to their strategic needs. Xi has been remarkably successful in doing this.”
  • “I think Xi has made a strategic error. I think he’s underestimated the United States, and that’s something that’s easy to do…I think the real risk is that he underestimates America’s resilience, and its history and its culture.”
  • “I think they misread President Trump in his doggedness and the trade talks and his resilience, but the real misreading wasn’t just of President Trump, but of the American people and of the bipartisan support for strong pushback against China’s rise.”

Underestimated global leaders:

  • “I think we need leaders with a different type, a larger broader type of vision, similar to our adversaries, in order to cope better with our adversaries. We need leaders in the West that can adopt a whole of government approach.”

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