ARLINGTON — Psychotherapist Herb Pearce is wearing a Santa hat despite the mid-August heat. Only his Hawaiian shirt, sockless loafers, and whirring plastic fan hint at the summer swelter.
It’s part of the mystique: Legions of fans trek to Pearce’s second-story Arlington apartment for personality workshops. Pearce is known as the Enneagram Man, and is a 35-year expert on personality types and interpersonal relationships. His own personality calls to mind a thoroughly chilled-out Mr. Rogers, with a dreamy aura and a wan smile.
He’s currently at work on a book about the personality types of presidents which he plans to self-publish in time for the November election.
For those of us who’ve recently wondered, “What on earth are these people thinking?” well, “U.S. Presidents and Enneagram Type” is the book for you.
“Our Enneagram type describes our core operating system,” Pearce explains.
The Enneagram is a self-assessment tool that dates back several centuries, though it’s come into prominence in recent years as a corporate team-building technique in the United States.
The theory groups human behavior into nine distinct types depicted as points on a star-shaped Enneagram, a Greek portmanteau for “nine” and “drawing”: The Perfectionist (1), The Helper (2), The Achiever (3), The Romantic (4), The Observer (5), The Security Seeker (6), The Optimist (7), The Challenger (8), and the Peacemaker (9).
Types are generally known solely by their number, and each type has positive and negative tendencies that manifest depending on the situation.
Many presidents tend to be Nines, Pearce says, because they prize harmony. The Oval Office saw its share of Ones, Threes, and Eights, too. (Donald Trump is a definite Eight, Pearce declares.)
Each type is driven by a fundamental fear and motivation, which sets it apart from other popular self-assessment tools like Myers-Briggs, which analyzes behavior but doesn’t diagnose its root. Today, the Enneagram is used in personal development, coaching, counseling, universities, and in human capital management. Pearce appears at corporate seminars, schools, and retreats; he also sees private clients who long to better understand their mates or children.
And now Pearce is bringing the analysis to another niche ecosystem: The White House.
“Many more people disliked being president than liked it,” Pearce has concluded.
But if there’s any logic to be found in this political frenzy, Pearce is determined to uncover it through the Enneagram, which is not as mystical as astrology and not as open-ended as Myers-Briggs categorizations.
The Enneagram, on the other hand, ascribes behavior to one inborn type, through which all of our experiences are filtered.
Patricia Hunt Sinacole, founder of Boston-based human resources consulting firm First Beacon Group, thinks such tests have their place, within reason. (She has not used the Enneagram herself, but she’s familiar with various self-assessment tools.)
“Even high schools are using them to help kids with career decisions,” she says. “I think they’re helpful and insightful and one more tool to help people understand who they are and why they’re good at certain things, as long as they don’t box people in. With hiring, it could be dangerous, but with team-building, it could be helpful,” she says.
Pearce is careful to point out that the Enneagram doesn’t pigeonhole people; rather, it gives them insights into their motivations so they can enjoy smoother relationships and self-growth.
Which sounds interesting to me: I’ve done some reading on the subject and concluded that I’m a 3 (an achiever, thank you very much), but I ask Pearce to walk me through each type as he would a client.
The process seems lighthearted. He leads his workshops using props: Each type has corresponding hat-wear, and Pearce explains each in a melodious tone:
1. The Perfectionist: Pearce dons a Puritan hat. “This type is rigid. They want clear definitions of right and wrong. They have values about how things should be, and there’s a strong moral tone,” he says. They get nervous if things are too foggy.”
2. The Helper: He puts on a Santa hat. “This type is always giving, generous, smiling. Problem is, they see who they are as giving as opposed to just receiving or hanging out. They can be too much, too intrusive, or too controlling.
3. The Achiever: Here, an Uncle Sam-style hat appears. “Threes sell the sizzle, not the steak,” he says. “They have a goal and go into action quickly, with lots of to do-lists. This type fears failure.
4. The Romantic: Pearce puts on a beret. This broody type craves depth and meaning — and, at worst, can tend toward the overly dramatic. “This is a dominant type I see in therapy,” he says.
5. The Observer: Out comes a conductor cap. This type is occupied with “mental models, schemes, and theories,” he says. This type worries that their wisdom will never be quite enough.
6: The Security Seeker. “This type is always looking for a worst-case scenario,” says Pearce, adjusting a military helmet. This anxiety-driven type fears insecurity. “You see a lot of this in the insurance industry.”
7: The Optimist. This type is the bailiwick of highly wired comics, not politicians. “They’re optimists but sometimes look only at the positive and tend to avoid the negative,” says Pearce, now in a joker’s hat.
8: The Challenger. This is the presidential sweet spot, says Pearce, clutching a crown. “They’re leaders, they take charge, they go after what they want,” he says — similar to Achievers, but less concerned with outward perception. “They don’t mind the bad boy, bad girl image,” he explains. “There’s an Enneagram joke: Ones call up God to make a decision. Eights don’t need to; they think they are God.” This type fears submission and weakness.
9: The Peacemaker. This chameleon wears every hat and longs for smoothness at all costs. “They want comfort, peace, harmony. Not surprisingly, they fear turmoil and assertiveness.
Next weekend, Pearce is off to New Hampshire to delve into the Enneagram of Franklin Pierce — a distant relative with a troubled life, probably marred by alcoholism, he says.
But still, nothing is stranger than what’s transpired in Washington over the past few months. Does he have advice for those of us watching the election run-up and wondering what might happen?
“I don’t think people change. You just become a healthier version of your type,” he says.
Oh, and a strong spouse helps. “A lot of presidents had lovely marriages. Many presidents wouldn’t have done as well without their wives.”Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.