Jesse Singal is right to argue that great leaders take advice. Great leaders know what they do not know. They know that they need to rely on others and they do so.
They are right to do so. Psychology has shown that the wisdom of a group often surpasses the instincts of an single individual.
Singal was trying to discredit Donald Trump and Scott Walker, but his argument could surely have applied to one Barack Obama. It is worth pointing out that Walker, as opposed to Trump, does have a track record to run on. It’s one thing to say that your ability as a political strategist is based on your ability to build tall buildings. It’s quite another to say that it is based on your ability to govern.
We note, with some amusement, a New Yorker magazine quote by Obama from 2008, at the beginning of his campaign:
I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters, I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.
Of course, those were the old days when pundits and people who should have known better were falling all over themselves trying to estimate how brilliant Barack Obama really was. It was an unseemly exercise, one that even many good conservative minds succumbed to.
It ought to be obvious why presidents need to rely on advisers. One might note that Ronald Reagan did so, with great effectiveness. If you are going to take advice, you need to choose your advisers especially well.
According to University of Texas psychologist Art Markman, presidents, in particular need to rely on advisers:
These limitations hit hardest when we’re forced to make decisions in domains with which we’re unfamiliar — exactly the sorts of decisions a president has to make. “If you’re running for POTUS, you’re expected to be an expert in everything, and you can’t be,” said Markman. In other words, certain people can do a good job of making certain types of decisions on their own (you could do worse than asking Bill Belichick to call a game-deciding football play for you, even without an offensive coordinator advising him), but even someone with genius-level intelligence is unlikely to have the expert-level grasps of microeconomics and macroeconomics and foreign policy and environmental policy and all of the other subjects whose mastery would be required in an effective committee-of-one president.
A leader who is not too enamored of his own brilliance is more open to experience and more willing to learn from experience. In part, it’s about humility. In part, it’s a pragmatist’s willingness to be proven wrong by reality.
I asked Markman whether, all things being equal, we should seek out leaders who are high in this personality trait [ openness to experience]. “Absolutely,” he said, “because the future is always different from the past, and if you believe you’ve got it all figured out because of what you’ve already done in your life, then you’re gonna miss important new pieces of information.” Be wary, in other words, of candidates who highlight past successes as proof of their universal decision-making prowess.
Apparently, the more you receive cues that you are a powerful person, the more you believe that you don’t need to listen to other people. It makes sense to conclude that Barack Obama, a man who was barraged with cues about how smart he was simply accepted that he was the smartest guy in the room, and even the world.
Singal explains the lure of power cues:
Now, none of these interactions between personality and situation occur in a vacuum — being a powerful person means receiving cues that you are a powerful person, and these cues can feed back into your sense of yourself as a powerful person who doesn’t need to listen to others. In fact, in lab settings, at least, “If you prime people to make them feel powerful, they’re less likely to take advice,” said Larrick. Francesca Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said in an email that she’s conducted research that suggests a reason why. “I found that powerful decision-makers tend to resist the advice of experts because they experience the advice as a threat to their own claim to power and feel competitive with their advisers,” she said. This notion fits with the idea that “Donald Trump and Scott Walker take pride in being their own advisers and not really taking a lot of advice from others.” Larrick offered a similar interpretation: “One way to kind of exert your power is to stick by your opinions, no matter how wrong they are.”
It is altogether possible that this analysis accurately portrays the problems that would arise from for a Trump presidency. While many people seem to believe that political inexperience is a blessing, I consider it a problem.