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The Discontinuity of Donald Trump

June 19, 2016

Trump Shrugging

The past six months have turned US politics on its head. As the Democratic and Republican parties fumbled their way through their tortuous primary processes, both with their odd idiosyncrasies, wisdom has been thrown out the window. Bernie Sanders, the rumpled, always-angry 74 year-old, surprised supposed informed commentators with his consistent performance and enthusiastic supporters, albeit on a single message campaign.

On the other side of the political fence, conventional wisdom has really taken a beating as the candidate who was scorned and ridiculed from the start left all of his opponents in the dust. Donald J. Trump, once again, has prevailed in what’s become a new reality show version of US politics — except in this case the stakes are huge for not just the country and its 315 million citizens but the world at large.

And through the carnival-like atmosphere one key ingredient has been missing: leadership, the kind that makes nations great and that earns the respect from others.

Donald Trump’s successful invasion of US politics through his patented take-no-prisoners approach has taken everyone by surprise. He’s a lightning bolt out of a sunny, blue sky, with no apparent logic explaining his massive popularity among not just a segment of the Republican Party but among traditionally disenfranchised Americans who have tended not to vote in the past.
But should we be surprised with his rise in political stature, or was there writing on the wall, ignored by the pseudo intelligentsia?

Understanding what the concept of discontinuous change represents and how it operates in a highly volatile geo-political world helps point us in a direction to adapt to it.

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The late Charles Handy, a British management thinker, talked about how we live in a period of Discontinuous Change. It refers to change that occurs in erratic, unpredictable bursts. Handy, regarded as one of the top thinkers of all time, ranks beside management guru Peter Drucker. Author of such highly acclaimed books as The Empty Raincoat, The New Philanthropists and The Age of Unreason, Handy was at the forefront of identifying global trends.

Along a similar vein, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about what he calls Black Swan events, which may be briefly defined as: “An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict.” (Financial Times of London.) Take a moment to read Black Swans: The Achilles Heel of Leadership for a commentary on predictability.

The 2016 political primaries in the US may be viewed, to a degree, as discontinuous events. Much hand wringing by Hilary Clinton supporters and hair pulling by opponents to Donald Trump’s candidacy has produced no satisfactory results, especially in the latter case. In Clinton’s case, she may be the presumptive winner but it was due to a lack of adequate competition in the Democratic primary process. In national opinion polling, she edges out Trump but only because people are holding their noses when indicating who they would vote for in November.

Watching Republicans collectively wipe the egg off their face as such people as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Senator John McCain tepidly offer their support to Trump is indeed a weird spectacle. Yet failure to do so would ultimately wipe out any hope of winning November’s presidential election.

The coming match-up between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump has been referred to by some political commentators as an Alien versus Predator contest: both candidates are reviled by many voters but who are going to have to, as the vernacular goes, suck it up and vote for their party.

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What’s predictable about Trump is his unpredictable comments and behaviour, from at times rational (more as of late when trying to appear presidential) descending to intemperate and inflammatory (“The Donald” the public has come to know). However, what should we expect of Trump as a hypothetical president? More discontinuity? In other words, if we’re to believe his critics, whether voters, politicians of all stripes or business people, would Trump get an itchy finger for the nuclear missile launch button if Iran or North Korea pissed him off?

But what about Trump as a responsible president? A long-time friend who’s lived in the UK for many years and who works in pension fund investments, argues that Trump would likely mellow as president and surprise people by acting responsibly. Perhaps. The problem that has escalated since Trump has surprised the world at large by his massive success in the primaries (far exceeding his business success and TV entertainment) is a pile-on effect.

It’s become the de facto (perhaps Pavlovian) response to express how horrible he would be as president of the United States. Your correspondent, admittedly, has jumped on that band wagon. Check out Good Leaders Avoid the Donald Trump Fear Mirror.

Discontinuity, as explained at the start of this commentary, is about sudden, unanticipated events that impose dislocating effects on society and the economy. That Donald Trump is perceived as nothing short of Satan, albeit with blonde hair and wearing an expensive suit, discards any notion that he could conceivably function in a responsible and strategic manner when faced with a crisis.

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Our mental models (ingrained assumptions about the world that we acquire as we grow into adults) have become locked into one mode of what the world would look like under a President Trump. That may prove to be an ugly picture if he’s elected president. Yet history is full of examples of politicians perceived as not possessing exceptional leadership skills or who faced insurmountable odds, but who surprised people when they rose to the occasion when faced with a crisis. Examples include Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Franklin Roosevelt.

A more recent example of discontinuous leadership is President George W. Bush. He was dubbed by some media commentators as a “certified one term president” when he was elected in November 2000. Then an event occurred that rocked the world and which completely changed the context of his presidency—911. Bush rose to the occasion to lead the country during the ensuing months. However, his second term proved to be a disaster as poor planning and hubris led to the Iraq fiasco, which is seen by geo-political experts as the birthplace of ISIS.

North of the American border, the election in November 2015 of 43 year-old Justin Trudeau as prime minister shocked political commentators, and Canadians at large. Trailing in third place in the polls and perceived as a dilettante to national politics, Trudeau surprised everyone by his perseverance in campaigning for the country’s top job. Since being elected, his government has wobbled as Trudeau tries to deliver on his numerous promises. Never did informed people think that Justin Trudeau, with his many eccentricities and at times adolescent behavior, would become prime minister. Yet Canada now has a controversial leader who must attend to dozens of intersecting issues that will determine the country’s future growth and prosperity.

The purpose here is not to compare Donald Trump (or GW Bush or Justin Trudeau for that matter) to three revered national leaders. The point is to underscore our tendency to let our ingrained mental models guide our thinking, something to be avoided in a sea of discontinuous change. In the words of the late cultural anthropologist and leadership practitioner Angeles Arrien: “Be open to outcome, not attached to it.”

It’s always good to be underestimated.
— Donald Trump


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