Sunday, March 18, 2018

Team of Rivals

Abraham Lincoln famously seated a Cabinet full of many of the people he'd just beaten for the Republican nomination (see also: here). Just as famously, the current leader of the Party of Lincoln values loyalty above all else (see: here). Given the very few people left in the world who haven't yet said mean things about our 45th President, he is having some trouble filling staff positions--especially as new positions become vacant on what seems to be a daily basis. That he is unwilling to face criticism is one of Trump's defining characteristic, and among the many traits and beliefs that should have kept him from the presidency (see also: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; also here; oh, and here). While this obviously isn't the only important difference between Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln, it is a worthwhile aspect of leadership to explore.

Leadership is riddled with paradoxes. An important one is that those who seek power must be ready to accept criticism, and, further, to make use of it. Pursuing leadership positions takes guts. The very act of applying to be a benevolent overlord is by its nature a profession of faith in one's own ideas. Doing these jobs, however, often requires the kind of needle-threading, cajoling, and indirect leadership that can be difficult for someone who is inclined to seek power in the first place.

Trump reportedly spends vast amounts of his time marinating in the warm comforting broth of Fox News. I get it. My Twitter feed and news sources trend toward my own biases and world view. I sometimes dip my toe in right wing talk radio, just to see what's going on over there. It's my own version of things like the cinnamon challenge, the hot stove challenge, and Tide Pods. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Still, I understand the impulse to listen mostly to people who confirm your current world view. Also, I'm not the President of the United States.

I have served on, and been subjected to the whims of, a number of boards, councils, and leadership teams. The best of these were in some cases fairly contentious, as the free flow of ideas sometimes led to conflict. These conflicts may have been uncomfortable in the moment, but they usually made the organization stronger. By surrounding himself with people who agree with him, Trump is missing out on the following:
  1. Rehearsal - Presiding over regular meetings of people who disagree with you is great preparation for facing the press, the nation, world leaders, and internet comment sections. Trump has famously avoided press conferences and will never be allowed to testify in the Mueller investigation--whatever he may say about his willingness to do so. He doesn't face his adversaries, and he's getting worse at it as a result. He needs crib notes just to remember not to be a jerk. He prefers to bask in the adulation he experiences at campaign rallies, where variations in thought--even among conservative Trump supporters--can become lost in the generally positive atmosphere. 
  2. Deadlines - As I've disclosed before (see also: here) I usually get my work done by the time it's due. Usually just before it's due. Trump has faced some deadlines already (see also: here), but he's also fond of teasing things that will be coming in the very near future that we've yet to see, including an Obamacare replacement that covers more people for less, a secret plan to defeat ISIS, his tax returns (just as soon as that audit is completed), and a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending. People don't usually turn in their homework if no one asks for it, and regular meetings come with deadlines. 
  3. Grading - Having one's work scored from time to time by people lower in the hierarchy is not likely to be fun for most leaders. Getting this kind of feedback, however, is part of leadership--likely Trump's least favorite part of leadership. Nevertheless, he needs a report card every now and then (see: here).
  4. Ideas - Trump's brain is very good, just ask him (see also: here). However, getting some ideas from other good brains could be a big help. Maybe with some outside help, he could even come through with some of those items listed in #2, above. No leader, no matter how bright, knows as much as everyone in their organization. The best leaders make use of this wealth of knowledge and freely award credit when they do. 
  5. Diversity - There's a reason the Cabinet is constructed the way it is. It's like the Houses at Hogwarts (brave ones, smart ones, evil ones, and miscellaneous ones), or the Breakfast Club (see also: here), or the Spice Girls. Having representatives from different demographics widens the scope of opinions and perspectives. The Secretary of Agriculture brings different world view and experiences compared with the Secretary of the Treasury--unless they're all former Goldman Sachs executives, which would be stupid. 
  6. Fun - Intellectually curious people enjoy the company of people who make them question their preconceived notions. Trump may only like to hang out with people who are like him, but he'd be a better president if he could become interested in people like me. I'm cool, just ask me. Leading from a comfortable distance may feel safer, but the best leaders enjoy scrapping it out with smart people who disagree with them. 
  7. Broadcast - Most people in leadership aren't all-powerful. This means that imposing policy always involves selling that policy. If Trump could get his message to make sense to a small group of independent thinkers, they could in turn relay these thoughts to congressional leaders, world leaders, and some day our intergalactic overlords. Subjecting one's self to dissent from bellow provides an opportunity to disseminate opinions by way of those who share power. Even if you're the Great Big Boss, there's someone in your organization who shares your power--if only unofficially. Getting them on board can make all the difference.
Recently (since the inception of this post), Trump has undermined my thesis a bit. I’ve read that he now claims he does enjoy conflict, saying that he likes to watch his staff fight things out. It's difficult for me not to imagine this scenario not as much intellectual curiosity as WWE.

Also, we're seeing increasing incidences of a pattern in which he seems to form a position on the spot, only to have his staff "clarify"--that is, completely reverse--that opinion (see: hereherehere, and here). This puts me in the unexpected position of agreeing with him for brief moments (fix DACA at any cost!, suspend due process for gun owners!, raise the minimum age for gun purchases!, etc.), only to see things walked back to a traditional Republican stance in the following days. Since he seems to agree with whomever he talked with last, he may be one of the few people in the world who wouldn't be a better leader with more exposure to an array of opinions.

Evidence that Trump still doesn't do well with dissent can be seen in the parade of dissenters leaving the White House. Gary Cohen, for example, was working hard to steer the administration's policy on tariffs, until he suddenly wasn't. The rapid pace of staff turnover these days may be the result of people discovering that being a moderating force, or "the adult in the room," isn't a very good job in this administration (see also: here).

Still, there are lessons here for those of us in career-long positions. It never feels good to have your ideas filleted in a semi-public forum, but it's even more necessary for those in jobs that last 20, 30 years or more than it is for those that last four (or God forbid, eight). Like managing forests to keep them from filling with fuel for forest fires, long careers need maintenance. Longevity requires renewal, and there's nothing like facing your detractors regularly to keep things from becoming a tinderbox.

No comments:

Post a Comment