The history of the twentieth century is filled with so-called "cults of personality" - mass personal and political followings of charismatic leaders whose virtues and seemingly superhuman capabilities have been extolled by propagandists. From Adolf Hitler to Stalin to the Kims of North Korea, leaders have been publicly adorned with traits that seem to surpass the possibilities of any mere human. While "cult of personality" applies to both the fields of political science and psychology, the question can be asked: to what extent does the "personality" displayed in these political cults bear any relation to our textbook definition of personality?
To begin with, if personality is indeed made up of a complex interaction of traits, then the official versions of cultic personalities are indeed FULL of personality in the psychological sense. From extreme intelligence to wisdom to inventiveness to kindness and sheer toughness, the foci of personality cults have been filled with inflated traits that surpass the realm of what most would, in all honesty, consider possible. Adolf Hitler was depicted as a military genius, despite his relative lack of military experience and, as his war efforts increasingly failed, his tendencies to micromanage to the detriment of his professional soldiers. Both Hitler and Stalin were depicted as loving, fatherly figures whose concern for their people reached far beyond the halls of power into the humblest home. Yet each was responsible for the deaths of millions of those very citizens their love and concern was supposed to extend to - sometimes in the most direct and brutal ways. While both men were publicly depicted as tough and resilient, the facts show that Hitler descended into near-madness and ultimately took his own life as his fortunes ebbed and Stalin, according to several close to him, retreated in despair to his rural home after the German invasion. Such are not the actions of superheroic personalities. In a similar vein, the military prowess of Kim Il-Sung, the vaunted "Great Leader" and "Eternal President" of North Korea, included a hasty retreat into the Soviet Union to avoid a defeat at Japanese hands in the 1940s.
How would these men rate if the propaganda were discarded and they were subjected to REAL assessments of personality? One could assume that both Hitler and Stalin would rate high in aggressiveness, which may be an admirable trait in a public figure in dangerous times. Given their tendencies to blame others and see vast conspiracies at work against them, both would also likely rate high in neuroticism - something that would be much less appreciated by followers. In terms of agreeableness, neither is likely to win an award; their persecution of close associates and tendencies to berate underlings and colleagues would likely leave them wanting in this area. As far as conscientiousness goes, the blundering into a world war and the brutal deaths of millions, including their own citizens, would also make for poor publicity. In terms of the "Big Five" traits, perhaps such men would only score moderately or well in the area of "openness"; both Stalin and Hitler are well-documented to have been intellectually curious and possessed radical, if violent, revolutionary visions of the future.
While it is of course impossible to subject dead men to personality inventories, it is clear that the cults of personality were indeed lies and resulted from a desire to grab and maintain power and the inexorable droning of totalitarian bureaucracies. A question just as interesting as assessing the propaganda and real-life versions of dictators' personalities is what psychological mechanisms were at work in the people who actually believed in their heroic, cultic traits?