Can We Use Science to Choose Better Leaders?

Could we create a ‘Science Sorting Hat’ for politicians and the rest of us?

After I was raped at age 21 by a named chair of literature at Pomona College, I had the horrible realization that there was no protection for me and no one outside of my friends and family cared whether I lived or died. After my baby Anthony died, I learned that somebody could say anything they wanted to about me and my family on the internet (they accused me and my then-12 year old daughter of murdering Anthony to pursue a scorched-earth custody battle we weren’t really a part of) and there was no recourse of any type.

Later, I realized that food ads telling me products were healthy or natural and “good for me” not only weren’t true, they likely meant the exact opposite.

I realized that credit cards weren’t doing me a favor, they were just locking me in to working like a drone to make somebody else rich. Most likely, somebody else I didn’t think very much of, like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin or his wife Louise Linton, savior of black African children with HIV/AIDS.

Louise Linton, the “angel haired” savior of small black African children with HIV/AIDS [image: @LumpyLouise]

The process of volunteering for Bernie Sanders, listening to the statements of African Americans, Native Americans, Middle Eastern immigrants, and Latino people I grew up with, and looking at the Clinton Foundation revelations in light of my career as a nonprofit executive who actually went to work, accomplished something, and spent donated funds to help others, forced me to examine the larger reality of our 325 million American and 7.5 billion world lives.

Adult Swim noticed the same thing. Millions have. It’s why our ears perked up and we listened to and had confidence in Bernie Sanders.

Even former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, well-known as a wine-lover and smoking buddy of former President Obama, said in a recent interview that he thought America’s two party system was “over” and only a “cataclysm” would unite Americans. Boehner says “again” but I understand differently. I know Americans were never united. It just seemed that way to many, just like I felt ‘safe’ and like others cared until I was raped, or felt like there was some recourse to somebody saying you murdered your own baby until I learned otherwise.

It’s one thing to point out problems. It’s another thing to do something about them.

So what can be done?

First, the reality of what we’ve been going through should be obvious to everyone by now, regardless of our echo chambers. The overwhelming majority of our leaders, from local to state to federal levels, possess few, if any, of the qualities of actual leadership. They do fit into the qualities identified by Barbara Kellerman in her book Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters [Harvard Business Review 2004]. Kellerman is an obvious Clinton enthusiast, but she includes Bill Clinton in the book, covering his “oblivious” or culturally-inadequate lack of response to the Rwandan genocide. Seriously — that was her worst criticism of Clinton, the most devastating US president in recent history. But it’s a valid one: Clinton didn’t get that the Rwandan genocide was important and that the US could save lives because of something Kellerman didn’t and likely doesn’t quite understand: the people dying there had lives just as valuable as Clinton’s or her own. [Note: Kellerman’s more recent writing does show some recognition.]

So, the solution is pretty easy in some respects. Retail, manufacturing, and the restaurant industry long ago adopted early versions of it. In addition to random drug testing to ensure that people aren’t going to stick their hands in deep fryers by accident or run their co-worker over with heavy machinery, or get the keys to the store and enter after-hours to steal all the merchandise, these industries all use variations of personality testing to select reliable, relatively honest employees.

I’m pretty certain that if most political candidates outside of Bernie Sanders, Nina Turner, maybe Tulsi Gabbard, and the most recent group of Our Revolution applicants received personality tests and the results were publicized, few people would vote for them or even let them near their driveway or front porch.

That’s just one step that could be taken with current knowledge and easy technology. Just personality test them like a server applicant at Applebees or a junior accountant.

But I’m suggesting something much different and more radical.

Select leaders from qualified candidates based on measurable, quantifiable leadership capacity and traits. Conduct periodic evaluations and measurements to ensure they are performing adequately. We accept for-profit insurance companies or employers stating they will use genetic testing to decline healthcare coverage or will decline employment and healthcare coverage for individuals with genetic indicators of potential chronic illness, such as breast cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Why not abandon the “loudest/most corrupt candidate wins” for “the most mentally and physically fit candidates get the opportunity.”

Replace the corrupt, 19th-century-looking political parties with candidate testing and training organizations that use genetics, psychological testing, and neuroscience to pick people we can actually count on. If corporations were concerned with longevity and not quarterly earnings reports to shareholders, they would use a similar process to select and promote management [some are and do].

We know what good leadership qualities are. Kellerman is by no means the only scholar to research and identify principles of good leadership and write case studies. There are hundreds of leadership institutes, thousands of leadership conferences and training organizations, books, videos and websites devoted to leadership skills. Every single one of these above-board organizations and programs assumes that the goal of leadership is to accomplish measurable, tangible results for, at the minimum, a group of people (a school, a business, a church, a nonprofit organization, a nation, a region, a world).

And there is a total disconnect between this whole world of “Leadership” and measurable, quantifiable tests. Often, people who are “leaders” in “politics” and “business leadership” or “entrepreneurship” are just the loudest, most persistent, usually white male “usual suspects.” They’re the Bodega Box guys.

I’ve been stating for approximately 20 years in one form or another that our world suffers a huge economic, environmental, and social cost because of exclusionary practices. Diversity in human ability and endeavor is the reason we have 7.5 billion humans living in ever-increasing comfort and safety.

Things are getting better.

It feels like they are getting so much worse, but they are getting so much better.

This is where we need to go. I loathe the retro politics and retro storytelling of J.K. Rowling, an author I once defended against sexist attacks by the horrible Harold Bloom. But Rowling had one idea that could be a metaphor for a better, happier, richer, more creative, more vibrant life for all of us living creatures: the Sorting Hat. Just as Hermione Granger was sorted into Griffindor by the hat and some other kid got sent to Hufflepuff, maybe — just maybe —

That’s the answer. Don’t use the technology and science we have available and are building to hurt people and keep them down so some creep like Mnuchin can fly around on his private jet on the public dime and enrich his completely selfish, dumb, absurdly deaf-dumb-blind wife Louise Linton, or God Forbid treat our professional athletes like meat puppets throwing each other around to ‘entertain’ the masses while they risk life, limb, brains and family happiness lost to CTE —


We’ve made a lot of progress already. Use our technology and science, from human science like personality tests to genetic testing used positively to help people recognize and build on their natural strengths, not negatively, to identify or punish those with genetic differences or “bad genes,” to neuroscience, to identify cognitive capacities and improve teaching, learning and education.

There are sci fi writers writing about this, and writing “around it” and there’s a certain sense they had a bit of this idea with Star Trek, as Mr. Spock was always portrayed as having a value for having a “human” mother and Vulcan father, while later characters like Worf, also with one “human” parent and one Klingon parent were shown as having value from each genetic heritage.

This idea crystallized for me while watching this amazing TED talk by Anil Seth with students Friday:

Anil made the powerful point that our physical bodies are inextricably linked with our consciousness. Part of his thesis is that machine consciousness is unlikely to advance rapidly because of this connection between the living body and the conscious mind. Another part of his thesis is that our minds create what we perceive as “reality” from the inside out, as much, or moreso, as the outside input we receive through our sensory organs.

So, those of us who did and do respond to Bernie Sanders are instinctively responding to valid ideas that are life-affirming and life-producing.

Again, although I am very much disappointed that J.K. Rowling’s gifts and voice are used to support negative, suppressive, old ways of thinking and living, her work had another metaphor that makes sense in today’s world: the Death Eaters. These fearsome creatures were used by the forces of evil in Harry Potter’s world to suck the souls and lives out of the good wizards and witches.

Rowling has little to no problem seeing Donald J. Trump (factually, not the President of this British woman who is richer than the Queen) is a Death Eater. She cannot recognize that Clinton, May, and the great majority of other politicians are also Death Eaters.

The way we’ve been doing things with no evaluation or assessment except the very flawed “ballot box” …

We have a two step problem and multi-step solution. Even if elections are “fair” and votes are counted (they’re not), what good does that do if your candidate choices are poorly-qualified, lacking qualities millions of us have trained to have in leadership institutes and management programs, and that we use daily on the job?

Use science to qualify candidates (and many other types of jobs and education) first. And then have people vote the way we say it should be: one person, one vote. The technology isn’t that hard. Qualified candidates not only won’t be inclined to cheat, they won’t feel entitled to take a candidacy and office they have cheated to obtain.

Because that’s poor leadership.

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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