WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED? A CAUTIONARY TALE
It’s clear by now, that President Trump has lost his bid for re-election. It’s equally clear that the heated dialogue over the authenticity of the election process will continue for a long time. Having grown up under one of the most monumental political machines in the history of the republic (the Daley Machine in Chicago), I have no doubt that fraud and corruption were at play in processing the votes, and I also have no doubt that a smoking gun will never emerge to turn the results around. I know how infuriating this must be for Trump partisans and how reassuring it is for Biden’s followers, but the price we pay for a free and relatively open society is the unhappiness of at least half the country at any given time. Fortunately, the unhappiness rotates with some regularity.
I have devoted my professional life to a pair of overriding missions: The first is to discover why significant events happened the way they did; and the second, is to explain each player’s role in creating an outcome. The first mission is driven by my commitment to drill down, way beneath the surface, to find out why things really happened, and to learn something that makes the experience worthwhile. The second mission is driven by my belief that all human experience is a fifty-fifty deal. That is, there is no accidental behavior, nor one-dimensional explanations for what happens in our collective and individual lives.
Trump lost the election for two reasons – one cultural, and one individual. Ever since the mid-1980’s and the explosion of information, on a global level, the concept of risk has played a larger and larger role in our lives. Information is one of the most ennobling and most disabling forces in our culture. It creates opportunities for both individual and collective growth and success, unparalleled in the history of our species. But it also has an equally scary, sometimes even terrifying, impact. Information, single-handedly, has consistently and relentlessly undermined external security for all people and all institutions (I wrote about this in my first book – “Working Without A Net.”) What has become increasingly clear in our socio-economic lives, is that no one, or no institution, will take care of you. This is worth emphasizing, since it is the key driving factor in all of our cultural life. Your security, your guarantees, and your peace of mind, is your job – and no one else’s. This is where risk comes in. In a world with rapidly disappearing security, those who prosper and succeed will be the risk-takers. Those who will live with constant anxiety and fear will be the risk-averse. Consequently, our focus on “income inequality” is misplaced. It is a symptom, not a cause. What we suffer from in America, is “risk inequality.” If you abhor risk; do everything in your power to avoid it – you will become more and more marginalized, and eventually, poor. Trump was defeated because the risk gap became too great. We forget that success is a double-edged sword. It emphasizes what people do that works; and what they do that doesn’t. Very smart people opposed to Trump, played this risk gap like concert pianists. The tune was unmistakable – besides lots of free stuff, we will take care of you, and remove risk from your life. Don’t believe for a second that this election was about political ideologies. And COVID – 19 sealed the deal. It brought risk to its zenith, and was used to unequivocally make the election about who was going to protect people from the risk of simply being alive.
Donald Trump was his own worst enemy. In spite of accomplishing what undeniably has been one of the most productive administrations in the country’s history, he thoroughly succeeded in violating the key principles of sustainable leadership. Sustainable is the key word. You can achieve a great deal in a relatively short period of time, by rallying your partisans and capturing their emotions. You cannot sustain the success by thoroughly alienating your opposition. Trump is a quintessential change agent – a massive disrupter and upsetter. He saw clearly what shouldn’t remain the same and went after it with a vengeance. He was not hampered by disappointing people. What he failed to realize was the difference between disappointing people and creating a hostility that destroyed any possibility of an intellectual or emotional connection.
One of the most important characteristics of successful leaders is their “Self-Information.” This is the ability to know when you’re at your best and when you’re at your worst. This gives you the choice to alter your self-destructive behavior and change direction in mid-stream. Trump could not resist his need to get hooked into childish defensiveness by equally childish and hostile reporters, who have a need to upset and provoke authority figures. It was sad and predictable – like watching a drunk start up his car and reel away from the curb.
Another crucial characteristic is the ability to recognize one’s impact and be courageous enough to develop a plan to change it, when it habitually gets in the way. His incessant repetition, and his distracting throw-away comments regularly undermined his credibility. Continually saying the exact same thing over and over again, causes people to tune out and lose focus. In addition, throwing out comments disconnected from his current points, makes him look juvenile and disorganized. This is not the issue of “looking presidential” – it is the point of acting adult.
Lastly, great leaders listen at least 10 times more than they talk. The most impactful and impressive people I’ve worked with, use the least amount of verbiage and say the most meaningful things. Amongst the most meaningful, are their plans for the future and the goals they have for their followers.
My remarks here are not an endorsement of the behavior of Trump’s adversaries, nor an indictment of the President. Hopefully they have lessons embedded in them to better understand the culture we live in, and the leadership we deserve.