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How to Evaluate a President

How to Evaluate a President

    Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. Richard Branson. What do they all have in common, aside from wealth?

    They all succeeded without the right kind of prior experience. Apparently they knew how to figure out what they needed once they started. I’ll bet they are all systems-thinkers, not goal-thinkers.

    If you see the world in terms of goals, you might think President Trump has failed at every important goal so far. He didn’t get what he wanted on immigration. He hasn’t gotten his Supreme Court nomination confirmed. He hasn’t replaced Obamacare. He hasn’t defeated ISIS. He hasn’t done a lot of things he said he would do. He even had to fire General Flynn. President Trump is a big ol’ failure when it comes to goals.

    Maybe that’s because Trump just started on the job. Success generally comes after you start. If you think success comes before you start, the world probably looks confusing to you.

    But in any case, as I often say, goals are for losers. Systems are better. As I describe in my book, a good system is something you do every day that leads you to better outcomes, not specific objectives. For example, going to college is a good system even if you don’t know what job you might later want. Any time you learn something valuable, that’s a system. Networking with important people is a system. And so on.

    Trump seems to be a systems thinker. I doubt he knew he would jump from real estate developer, to author, to reality TV star, to president. At least not in that order. Instead, he systematically accumulated money, persuasion skills, and personal connections until he had lots of options. Being president was one of them.

    Now the world watches as an entrepreneurial systems-thinker with no government experience takes over the White House and tries to learn on the job. How did you expect that to go?

    I expected some broken dishes, some firings, some chaos, and some rookie mistakes. We got all of that. But I also expect a systems-thinker to tame the chaos over time as he learns on the job. For example, the leaks will stop as soon as Trump fires the right people. He’ll figure out which meetings he can skip. He’ll know who to trust. He’ll learn where all the buttons and levers are. It’s a process.

    If you are comparing the incoming Trump administration to the smooth transfer of power that defines our modern history, that’s an irrational comparison. If the country wanted a smooth ride it would have elected Hillary Clinton. Instead, voters opted to “drain the swamp.“ And you can’t drain the swamp without angering the alligators and getting some swamp water on your pants. That’s what we’re watching now.

    My liberal friends are gleefully scouring the semi-fake news and sending me articles that show Trump is “incompetent.” That’s the new narrative on the left. The Hitler illusion is starting to fade because Trump refuses to build concentration camps as his critics hallucinated he would. And Israel likes Trump, which is making the Hitler illusion harder to maintain. So the critics are evolving their main line of attack from Hitler to “incompetent,” with a dash of “chaos.” You’ll see those two words all over the Opposition Media’s coverage. It isn’t a coincidence.

    Persuasion-wise, focusing on incompetence and chaos is a strong play by the anti-Trumpers. One would expect the new Trump administration to have lots of growing pains. That means the Opposition Media will have plenty of fodder that they can frame as incompetence and chaos. Confirmation bias will make it all seem to fit the narrative. This is the same persuasion play that Trump used when he assigned to his opponents nicknames such as Lyin’ Ted and Crooked Hillary. He depended on future news cycles to serve up lots of confirmation bias to make his labels more credible over time. Trump’s opposition is running the same persuasion play on him. Now everything he does will be seen through their frame of “incompetence” and “chaos.” Even if it isn’t. That is strong persuasion.

    If you step out of the Opposition Media’s framing of Trump, another frame that fits the data is that he’s learning on the job, just like he learned every other field that he entered and eventually mastered. I don’t know what you expected when Trump went to Washington, but it isn’t too different from what I imagined. I assumed there would be broken dishes. And I assumed it would take him months to get his systems in place. 

    When I worked in corporate America, I was usually involved in setting goals for the department. When we didn’t meet those goals, I always pointed out that the problem could be on either end. Either the goals were unrealistic or the performance was bad. Both explanations fits the data. Likewise, Trump’s first few weeks do look exactly like “incompetence” and “chaos” if you are primed to see it that way. But they also look like a systems-thinker simultaneously draining the swamp and learning on the job.

    Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

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