Monday, August 3, 2015

Great Leaders Take Advice

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.

Singal continues:

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.

But, it is ironic to consider that, for having a president whose extreme arrogance led him to believe that he was smarter than everyone else at all aspects of politics and governance, many Americans find themselves attracted to a candidate who presents the same boastful self-aggrandizing qualities, based on no political achievements.


Ares Olympus said...

Minnesota elected Wrestler Jesse Ventura for Governor from 1998-2002, winning as a third party in a 3-way race between a democrat and a republican-turned-democrat. I think its generally agreed he knew his limits and appointed good nonpartisan experts to help advise him.

Perhaps all "entertainers" like Reagan and Ventura and Trump know their limits and after elected they (did/will) pick and follow their experts more than their own amateur knowledge.

On the other hand, maybe its also vital for a leader to be able to question his experts, not just when they say what he doesn't want to hear, but to understand the reasoning behind a position, enough to be able to articulate the reasoning, and then also see what other experts think.

And things like the economy, war or climate change don't always have enough information to make "right" decisions, so a leader has to be willing to accept not only his own ignorance, but the ignorance of the experts, and make a decision anyway, or advocate for a position that isn't completely defendable, and yet be willing to take responsibility whatever the outcomes.

I remember George W joked "If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier... as long as I'm the dictator." I didn't think badly of him for the joke because a dictator with 100% of the power also has 100% of the responsibility of outcomes, while a democratic president has limited power to take responsibility. The maligned executive orders perhaps is the only semi-dictatorial power he can take 100% responsibility.

And it does seem to me that whenever we have times of crisis, whether economic or war or natural disaster, people want a decisive leader who doesn't sit back waiting for a dozen experts to make decisions for him, but looks at clear need, and makes dramatic choices that help relieve immediate suffering or fears.

The trickiest thing I wonder about leadership is honesty. If you think something is a lost cause, do you say so, or hope you're wrong and offer brave words just in case it makes a difference. Its tough if we expect our leaders (and the experts who guide them) to do the impossible and blame them for failing.

Perhaps pride means most leaders can never reverse course, but have to depend on letting someone else rise to power, and offer a different course. And yet if the first leader never admits they made a mistake, then the rising leaders have to exaggerate their case to gain power, and fall into the same traps of overconfidence against possibly intractable predicaments, reacting into the opposite extreme as the path of least resistance.

I imagine many leaders would like to admit their mistakes, but in a political climate of exploiting any weakness, no one dares to admit anything, and its easier to double down on something than to try to tweak a position and be called a flip-flopper and all that nonsense.

Perhaps the best advisors are not experts on political subjects but ones who can see what is troubling a leader, and force him at least to admit it to himself, and then when the elephants in the room can be seen at least for those moments.

Sam L. said...

Excellent comment, Ares!

priss rules said...

Taking advice is one thing.

GOP midgets take orders from the likes of Koch Bros.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @August 3, 2015 at 5:41 AM:

Excellent, substantive comment. Regarding Gov. Ventura, I always wondered how much anyone really thought he could screw up any worse than the careerists with D or R after their name. From your telling, he seemed to bring humanity and openness to the office. Much needed... everywhere.

And your comment speaks to the Teddy Roosevelt quote about "the man in the arena."