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Tom Kirkman: Personality of a Survivor

Monica 9 months ago 4 comments

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

It’s not really a spoiler to give away the basic premise of Designated Survivor, a TV show that has recently moved to Netflix from the ABC network. It is pretty much thrown out there in all the previews for the show. The Capitol Building of the United States is destroyed during the State of the Union address and the designated survivor – one Tom Kirkman, formerly 13th in line to the presidency – now becomes the president of the United States.

No one is sure about this guy, no one has heard of him, and now he’s president. We in the audience are waiting to see what happens next.

One of the first things he does as president? Runs to a bathroom to throw up.

Right after that, he gives the mostly unknown junior speechwriter who insults him the job of writing the speech he’ll give to the nation, because Kirkman likes the fact that he’s willing to be honest.

Welcome to the world of Tom Kirkman. But it’s not so much his presidency that is of interest to us at 16Personalities. It is his personality, which, under the pressure of unreal circumstances, takes center stage within the key player in the stories that unfold.

Personality Analysis

In our opinion, Tom Kirkman appears to be a classic Advocate with a tendency toward Turbulence (INFJ-T). The show, which becomes more about how he handles the crises that surface around him, is an excellent opportunity to really see one of the rarest personality types in action.

Feeling and Intuitive

“Doing the right thing doesn’t always make you feel good.”

Tom Kirkman, Designated Survivor

Diplomats, those with the Feeling and Intuitive personality traits, tend to develop strong ideals. They stick to these ideals sometimes to the point of fault. Tom Kirkman’s behavior seems to center around this tendency.

Kirkman is determined not to get sucked into the political games and posturing of Washington, DC. At the same time, he is determined to remain honest and true to himself and his integrity. On top of all that, he identifies himself as a political independent and fiercely works to safeguard that identity.

It is a lot to live up to, but it is central to Kirkman’s character that he always strives to live up to his ideals. The right thing, as defined by Advocates, tends to be something they find and understand through their own intuition and feelings. He cares very deeply about people and his country. Feeling he had no other choice than to accept the mantle of president, Kirkman puts all his effort into living up to the expectations of the office.

Having an ideal and trying to live up to it can be found in many Diplomats. Different types of Diplomats may have different ways of following their ideals, but they all tend to share much of this Intuitive passion for what they believe. So, let’s dive deeper into how Tom Kirkman lives up to his ideals as an Advocate.


“Beware the fury of a patient man.”

John Dryden

Tom Kirkman can be pretty intense in holding to his ideals. Although you may wonder who can argue with honesty and authenticity as cornerstones of behavior, he is often so unshakable in his ideals that he can undermine himself. It is an odd position to be in, as an audience member, to be rooting for someone to not be quite so honest. Especially in his early days, no matter the downside, he won’t budge from his idealistic tendencies.

If he tends to be severe in adhering to his ideals in his own life, he forgives a lot in others, as long as he sees them as coming from a place of heart and authenticity. He really doesn’t mind people disagreeing with him if they do it honestly and respectfully. Authenticity in others is very important and appreciated by a lot of Diplomats – the Judging ones especially.

For those individuals who betray his ideals, especially those who disrespect the actual constitutional office of the president, Kirkman can be severe and unforgiving. From firing a top general to incarcerating a standing governor, he doesn’t tolerate people going behind his back and will take action against anyone who is outright insubordinate.

He can act very decisively when his ideals are lined up and he believes he is in the right. He feels a lot of pressure to live up to his role as president, and this further reinforces his need to exercise the Judging, decisive, absolutist side of his personality.


Tom Kirkman can often appear confident dealing with other people, but ultimately, he’s a quiet Introvert.

As the former secretary of housing and urban development, he presumably has stood in front of a crowd before, but he did so more subtly and more within his comfort zone. He is new to the glaring spotlight of presidential politics and never becomes completely comfortable with it.

Whether literally or figuratively, he needs to be able to withdraw from the people around him and think things through in order to make decisions, plan, and figure out what to do. He may ask for opinions from others, but ultimately, he keeps his own counsel.

From direct attacks to aggressive questioning, Kirkman isn’t quite equipped to deal with a complete loss of his privacy or having his every move examined in excruciating detail. This puts a lot of strain on his character.

He takes the classic Introvert approach of drawing upon his own inner identity to get him through. He does this over and over, and it becomes the signature of Kirkman’s character as president. When the going gets toughest, he looks inside for the truth about who he is and what he is trying to do, and he uses it. Being sincere, honest, and up front with people becomes his best tool and best defense through the trials he faces, and it ultimately gets him through the very worst of times.

“Your boyish sincerity is your best quality, sir. I hope you don’t lose it.”

Speaker Kimble Hookstraten, Designated Survivor

All of this seems to make Tom Kirkman a consistent and classic Advocate.


“We’re not defined by our difficulties. We’re defined by how we respond to them.”

Tom Kirkman

The Advocates we picture most often tend to be the strong, Assertive Advocates whose voices ring with calm, confident power and inspiration. We can see that voice somewhere in Tom Kirkman, but we also see a tentativeness and reactiveness, which is much more characteristic of the Turbulent Advocate.

One thing Turbulent individuals do is focus on the negative. More specifically, in Kirkman’s case, he tends to focus on what is going wrong – going from one crisis to the next. He seems to spend more time fixing than building.

Of course, Kirkman has a country in chaos and is trying to do something unprecedented. Being tentative and reactive may just be a natural reaction to suddenly being thrust into one of the most visible, influential, and demanding jobs in the world under the most chaotic of circumstances.

He can balk and be uncertain of how to approach situations, especially ones that are far out of his depth. But Kirkman is a strong Judging personality, so he balances this out with an unshakable determination to get things done no matter what.

Advocates, even Turbulent ones, can be very determined and very decisive in their behavior – it’s the Judging trait in action. We see his Turbulence in his occasional indecisiveness or in the need to reconsider or review a decision privately after it has been made. Combine this with his “honesty is the best policy” view of the world, and Kirkman does wind up eating crow or having to walk back decisions on more than a few occasions.

He also must regularly do battle with his ideals and the overwhelming pressure to do things that are contrary to them. We see him in these conflicts throughout the series. Some of these pressures are from his own internal drive; some are from the people and expectations around him. This internalization of outside conflicts and wrestling with one’s conscience is common among Turbulent Advocates.

Tom Kirkman also has a fairly strong tendency toward agitation. It seems natural at first. He’s been thrown into the most extreme of situations, and anyone would find it challenging to deal with what he has taken on. You can compare his behavior with that of his two de facto advisors, Aaron Shore and Emily Rhodes, or even the other lead character, FBI Agent Hannah Wells – all of them Assertive personality types – to see the difference in how they handle the stress of the events that unfold in the show.

While Kirkman does his best to stay calm and deal with everything with equanimity, he can lose his temper or become frustrated or impatient with things that challenge him.

When faced with a room full of generals who assume he has no worthwhile knowledge to contribute to a decision-making process, his reaction – to retreat from the room and throw up – is pure Turbulence. Pulling himself back together to go back into the room and tell those generals he wants better information before making a decision displays the characteristic decisiveness and strong-willed ideals that come from the Judging and Feeling sides of being an Advocate.

Even as he gets more used to the demands of being president, he continues to have the occasional bout of anger, frustration, or agitation at his circumstances – it is something he never loses. Despite his Turbulence, emotional outbursts, mistakes, and overwhelming circumstances, we ultimately see a strong Advocate in action, working hard to uphold his ideals and determined to do the best job he can in living up to his responsibilities.

Constant Improvement

“If everybody is so afraid of losing, how on earth can anyone ever win?”

Tom Kirkman, Designated Survivor

Constant Improvement is the personality Strategy shared by Turbulent Introverts, and Tom Kirkman is a great example of how this approach tends to work.

One characteristic of Constant Improvers is a strong tendency toward self-doubt, and therefore, self-examination. In this examination, they see flaws and errors in their behavior.

For some individuals, this can cause them to dwell on mistakes, and that may intensify their doubts. For Kirkman, this self-examination comes with a need to resolve the flaws he perceives. His focus on mistakes forms the basis for a cycle of continuous self-examination and self-improvement – a great example of how this Strategy gets its name.

When Kirkman makes a decision – or encounters a problem he doesn’t know how to handle – he deals with a certain level of fear and doubt. He sometimes flails, knowing full well that he doesn’t know how to solve the issue. Sometimes he pushes through with his determined Judging side to make the best decision he can at the time and then struggles with the consequences.

Being able to see and examine the shortcomings of his knowledge, and then admitting what he doesn’t know, is how he ultimately figures out how to address an issue or repair a misstep.

Despite some of the challenging sides of Turbulent behavior, Constant Improvement is a very effective Strategy when approached this way.

In this way, every mistake, misstep, or shortcoming can lead to personal growth and understanding. You see Kirkman take this approach on a regular basis, and he is a wonderful example of what is regarded as Turbulent behavior made into a personal asset.


Whether you follow the show or not, Tom Kirkman’s character presents a great opportunity to see a Turbulent Advocate in action.

What about some of the personality types of other characters in the series? Here are a few:

We at 16Personalities enjoy presenting personality profiles of fictional characters as a way to better understand various personality types and traits. Ultimately, though, these characters are fictional and may display traits in different ways than we see in the real people around us.

We would love to hear your opinions as well. What thoughts do you have about Tom Kirkman’s personality type? Share your comments below!

Further Reading

Assertive Advocate (INFJ-A) vs. Turbulent Advocate (INFJ-T)

Lady Gaga’s Personality Type: Far From the Shallow

Marie Kondo’s Personality Type Revealed! (And yes, it sparks joy.)

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