In his upcoming book, Why Leaders Fight, Batten School Dean Allan C. Stam and his team analyze dozens of pieces of biographical data for 2,500 world leaders since the 1870s—political chief executives, heads of state, presidents, dictators, kings, prime ministers—for risk aversion and acceptance. Using the data—experiences in their lives such as losing their parents, seeing battle and suffering trauma—they developed a model to predict risk-taking in terms of the willingness to use force against one’s neighbors. Stam recently spoke to Virginia Magazine about his research and some of the surprises it uncovered.

On the book:

Allan Stam: The book is a reaction to 60 years of academic research by political scientists, economists and sociologists who have de-emphasized or shifted the focus away from leaders and leadership in trying to understand what drives the policy outcomes we observe in the world. Through World War II, if social scientists and historians were trying to explain a big event or series of events or the state of the world, the first thing they would typically turn to was leaders’ preferences and the character of national leaders, local leaders and state leaders. If we think about the way most of us were taught how to understand the formation of the United States of America, the stories we were told growing up focused on the Founding Fathers—the role that leaders play. After World War II, that emphasis on leaders shifted profoundly in political science, economics, sociology and history.

On focus shifting away from leaders:

World War II played a huge role. There’s a view shared by many people that leaders got us in trouble, that World War II was this huge, cataclysmic event that led to the deaths of over 100 million people, and it was caused by leaders, so we need to move away from there.

Before coming to the Batten School, Dean Allan Stam served in the Army, active-duty and Reserve, including time as a communications specialist on a Special Forces detachment. Stacey Evans

Within academia, I think it’s a little more complex. Historians in the post-World War II period became more interested in social history, rather than diplomatic and military history. In both Europe and the United States, in the social movements of the 1960s—the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement—sociologists saw these as the things that mattered. And they chose to emphasize the power of class, mass movements and social structures over the role that individual leaders played in those movements. Economists almost always focused on markets, not people. Political scientists show the biggest shift after World War II. Political scientists previously had focused on international relations and on the national balance of power, where leadership, morality and governance played critical roles in determining state influence and power.

After World War II, with the development of nuclear weapons, it seemed like we didn’t need a nuanced notion of what power was. Leadership didn’t matter in a world of mutually assured destruction. You were either powerful or you were not. You could either destroy your neighbors or not. Deterrents would succeed or fail. Nuanced, complex notions of leadership didn’t really matter.

A Look at the Leader Risk Index

Helen Clark Helen Clark
Grover Cleveland Grover Cleveland
James Garfield James Garfield
Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein
Ayatollah Khomeini Ayatollah Khomeini
Mao Zedong Mao Zedong
Golda Meir Golda Meir
Richard Nixon Richard Nixon
Josef Stalin Josef Stalin
Harry Truman Harry Truman

Helen Clark Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1999–2008

Grover Cleveland President of the United States, 1885–89, 1893–97

Harry Truman President of the United States, 1945–53

Golda Meir Prime minister of Israel, 1969–74

Richard Nixon President of the United States, 1969–74

Saddam Hussein President of Iraq, 1979–2003

James Garfield President of the United States, 1881

Josef Stalin Prime minister of the USSR, 1941–53

Mao Zedong Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, 1949–59

Ayatollah Khomeini Leader of Iran, 1979–89

Key prior experiences: Taught political studies at the University of Auckland before entering Parliament in New Zealand

Risk in office: Clark is not known for being particularly risky, something that follows both from her experiences and from New Zealand’s position in the world.

Key prior experiences: Avoided military service in the U.S. Civil War and became a lawyer

Risk in office: His broad interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine challenged British interests, but reflected growing U.S. power in the world. Cleveland wasn’t seen as particularly risk-acceptant.

Key prior experiences: Served in combat in World War I and was vice president before becoming president

Risk in office: Not particularly risky, Truman was known for careful decision-making, even when the results were bold, especially in response to the Korean War and at the outset of the Cold War.

Key prior experiences: Significant political experience as foreign minister and labor minister before becoming prime minister of Israel

Risk in office: An advocate of a powerful Israeli military, Meir led Israel when it was attacked by Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Key prior experiences: Lost a presidential campaign, and the California gubernatorial race, before winning the 1968 presidential election

Risk in office: Known for being a realist and for being careful about his foreign policy choices, Nixon took chances in his outreach to China and embrace of détente with the Soviet Union.

Key prior experiences: Helped lead a coup to put his predecessor in power before later forcing him to resign and taking power

Risk in office: His behavior in office demonstrated a large degree of risk acceptance, from his war with Iran in the 1980s to his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Key prior experiences: Major-general for the Union during the U.S. Civil War, and elected to the presidency as a sitting member of the House of Representatives

Risk in office: Garfield was considering an expansion of the U.S. Navy before he was assassinated. He was in office for a very short period of time, so while the Leader Risk Index predicts that he would have been risky, we will never know.

Key prior experiences: Began supporting communist activities after being expelled from an Orthodox seminary

Risk in office: From his willingness to engage in violent purges of the Soviet military before World War II to his dealings with Adolf Hitler and then the Allies to his desire to confront the United States after WWII, Stalin demonstrated a large degree of risk acceptance in office.

Key prior experiences: Originally a peasant, although his family became wealthy

Risk in office: Mao’s China entered several wars during his rule, from the Korean War to wars with India and the Soviet Union.

Key prior experiences: Began studying the Quran and preparing for a career in religion from an early age

Risk in office: Khomeini was risk acceptant, as illustrated by his willingness to challenge the Shah of Iran. Leading extensive rebel activity is very often a gamble. His early period in office was also highlighted by his many uses of the Iranian military.


Index by Allan Stam and Michael Horowitz. Risk scores on scale from 0 to 100, with 0 being most risk-averse and 100 being most risk-acceptant.

On what they were looking for:

The basic proposition is that the personality characteristics of individual leaders should affect their choices in office, which in turn will affect their countries’ behavior: whether or not they go to war; whether they escalate a crisis to war; if they’re in a war, whether their country wins or loses, how many casualties their country faces. We turned to psychology literature to see what psychologists would say. What are the experiences in people’s lives that have the greatest effect, systematically, on their behavior as adults? Psychologists focus on two things: one, highly salient or highly visible events or experiences; and, two, adolescence as a period in life where high-intensity, highly salient experiences have large and persistent effects on people’s adult personalities. They point to adolescence as the period in our lives in which our personality and character are most plastic or malleable. So we focused on life experiences and the nature of people’s families, their parents’ occupations, whether they were orphans. Did they serve in the military? Had they suffered trauma?

For these 2,500 leaders, we recorded about 50 different indicators, what their individual early life experiences had been. We focused on the experiences that psychologists have linked to risk-taking behavior, or what they refer to more technically as “disinhibition.” Let’s say you’re driving alone at night and there’s nobody on the road. Most people won’t drive their car 100 miles an hour even if there’s no one on the road and the road is straight. They feel inhibited. It’s too risky; it’s too dangerous. They might get caught; they might have an accident. Some people, however, are disinhibited, or risk-acceptant. They look around and say, "Well, there are no cops and the road’s straight. Let’s see how fast my car will go." There’s a whole slew of behaviors like this. The assumption that drives the argument of our book is that the things that predict disinhibited or risk-acceptant behavior in young adults and in people’s general lives will be the same for people when they end up in public office.

On female leaders:

Gender is an area that was really difficult for us to work with. Women make up about 6 percent of "leader years" in our data, so we don’t have the kind of statistical power or leverage to be able to make confident generalizations about women versus men as leaders. Within the context of that caveat, generally speaking, women don’t look any different.

But there’s one exception: Over the course of the last 140 years, there are about 20 or 30 leaders who used force in a particularly violent and gratuitous way, where they don’t seem to care at all about human life: Hitler, Stalin, Francisco Solano López in the late 1800s, Mao, Hussein, Khomeini, people with whom there are large numbers of deaths associated within their own country, and large numbers of deaths associated with the wars in which their countries fight. There are no women in that group of leaders. None. The guess is that 5 percent, plus or minus, of sociopaths are women; 95 percent are men. One inference we could draw is that political leaders aren’t that different, psychologically and physiologically, from people in the general population. We can learn a lot about leaders by studying human beings in the general population.

On Ronald Reagan:

Most leaders have to be willing to put themselves out there. We assumed that all these people would be risk-acceptant, but it turns out they’re not. Teddy Roosevelt’s one of the riskiest leaders. John F. Kennedy is one. Reagan makes the top 10 [risk-acceptant] of all leaders from 1870 on. Reagan’s riskiest choice was probably the decision to offer to Mikhail Gorbachev nuclear disarmament—hugely risky, politically.

This is what’s really interesting. What does that mean, for a political leader—or anyone, for that matter—to be risk-acceptant? If you talked to national security analysts or advisers in 1980 and asked them, “Would it be a risky choice for the United States to offer nuclear disarmament to the Soviets?” they all would have said: “Oh my god! That’s way too risky. We can’t do that. Deterrence is the only thing that that keeps us safe.”

Reagan believed that deterrence was immoral, that providing peace through the threat of annihilation was immoral. For 40 years people had said that’s the only way you can keep the peace. Reagan said he didn’t believe it and thought he could keep the peace through defense, what became known as Star Wars and the Strategic Defense Initiative. I think we could characterize that choice as both politically risk-acceptant, but also hugely risk-acceptant for the security of the United States, because it was based on a personal belief. It was a theory. He didn’t know. We still don’t know. People still think he was crazy. So Reagan ends up with a high risk score, but doesn’t go to war. Why is that? As was the case with Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, Gorbachev is also a fairly high risk-acceptant person in our data. Our sense is that those two guys mutually recognized each other’s attributes.

On some of the biggest surprises he’s discovered in the work:

[The fact that most leaders are risk-averse] was quite a surprise. Initially, I would have assumed the risky leaders would be distributed, that the democratic states, for example, would screen out risk-acceptant people and we would see most of the risk-acceptant leaders ending up in authoritarian states, and militarily risk-averse leaders ending up in democratic states, because there’s this general finding, the so-called “democratic peace,” that says democracies don’t go to war with one another. I assumed that’s probably because they’re both risk-averse. It turns out not to be true. Lots of times, they’re actually both quite risk-acceptant, but it seems like that may actually have a deterrent effect.

Another surprise is that leader risk can actually be a characteristic of an entire system. There are periods in history where the typical leader is highly risk-averse. Somewhat counterintuitively, those periods have historically ended up being very dangerous, because those risk-averse leaders have eventually been exploited by a very risk-acceptant leader who eventually comes along—like Hitler. It’s happened several times.

Another thing that’s very interesting that comes out in our data, comes simply from looking at the proportion of political leaders in the system who have had some kind of military service. For our data set [going back to the 1870s], roughly 40 percent of all chief executives or kings or dictators served in the militaries of their countries. Until the last 20 years. Today, it’s down to about 6 percent, [because of the] rise in volunteer armies. There’s been a decline in the social status of military service universally—not just in the United States. What effect that’s going to have, I don’t know. There’s never been a time when so few leaders have had exposure to military training, and the values that are inculcated. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, we can’t say, because we’ve never seen it before. That’s a big surprise, too.

On one of the most surprising leaders:

If you told me a few years ago that Kennedy was one of the most risk-acceptant leaders out there, I would have said, “What are you talking about?” The United States doesn’t get involved in big wars under his watch. The United States doesn’t have a war with the Soviet Union, so my instinctive reaction would have been that it was probably because he was risk-averse.

Stam calls this study of leadership a corrective to 50 or 60 years of intellectual history that led people away from emphasizing the importance of leaders themselves. Stacey Evans

One of the cases that we looked at quite closely in our book is the interaction between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev are very highly risk-acceptant leaders, and there’s good reason to believe that they were both acutely aware of that, mutually. The Cuban Missile Crisis leads to both sides willing to make concessions, because both Kennedy and Khrushchev recognized that nuclear war really was a possibility. In the game of chicken between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963, effectively, both sides turned off the road. So Kennedy was somebody who was a surprise. Having the facts in front of us forces us to think more carefully.

Another one is José María Hipólito Figueres Ferrer, the president of Costa Rica in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He was pretty risk-acceptant by our score. Costa Rica gets in no wars, so if we judge leader risk on the basis of whether they get involved in wars or not, I would think Ferrer is a very risk-averse guy. He ends up being reasonably high on our score, and if you look more closely you realize that this was the president of Costa Rica who disbanded the entire Costa Rican army. Costa Rica today has no army. It’s the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has no army. That actually is a very risk-acceptant choice in the same way that we can think of Reagan’s offer to Gorbachev of disarmament as a risk-acceptant choice.