The Short Attention Span President
The Short Attention Span President
May 20, 2017
When I am listening to advice from others, 99% of the time I exhibit a short attention span. The other 1% of the time the advice is worthy of a listen. In that rare case, I can listen all day. Given the situation I just described, would you say I have a short attention span?
Suppose you give me a briefing book with thousands of facts and I only seem to care about three of those facts. And then I succeed at whatever I’m trying to do with my three facts. Given that set of circumstances, would you say I am incompetent?
Part of the fun of watching the press cover President Trump is that they don’t have a leadership filter. Most writers and TV news people have never been leaders in super-complicated industries. President Trump has. And let me tell you a few necessary skills a leader in that situation needs to possess:
1. No patience with long explanations. If an advisor can’t put the USEFUL information in summary form, ignore and move to the next advisor.
2. Ability to know which variables are sufficient to make the decision.
A president needs those two qualities. Otherwise, the job would overwhelm. if you are one of the advisors who doesn’t get enough attention from the president – because your explanations of things are overly wordy or useless – what message do you leak to the press?
Answer: You say President Trump has a short attention span.
You get this same situation with almost every CEO of every large organization. In larger companies, underlings rarely think the CEO is sufficiently well-informed to make decisions. I write a comic strip about this sort of thing. It’s a universal phenomenon in large organizations.
And what happens if you are an advisor who puts together a brief that is too long and too complicated for a president with a hundred issues swirling around in his or her head? When your president skims or skips your brief, you start whispering to associates that he has no appetite for knowledge. You probably don’t leak the other explanation – that you are bad at summarizing.
Let me give you some context that might help here.
One of the patterns I observe in U.S. politics is that Democrats organize around the general concept of fairness for all people, including non-citizens. Republicans are more oriented toward the psychology of motivation. And that means you can easily put the wrong filter on your analysis of how much information a president needs before making decisions. The fairness president needs different information than the motivation president. Each would stop the learning when they had enough for their purposes, which are different.
For example, let’s say I’m a Republican president and you are trying to explain some policy options to me. As soon as you begin your description, I can see that your recommended approach would demotivate my base. That’s a non-starter. Do I need to hear the rest of your details? Skip it. Don’t need the details.
President Trump has navigated complicated business situations for decades. I’ll bet during those years he exhibited what others might label a short attention span and a low interest in details. Yet he succeeded, bigly. Same situation when he ran for president. He ignored a lot of details and won anyway.
Generally speaking, if you see a person who is a failure in life ignoring advice and eschewing knowledge, the best explanation for that situation is you are dealing with an incompetent person.
But if you hear allegations of a short attention span in someone with a multi-decade history of successfully navigating complicated industries, be open to the possibility that the messenger is pushing useless information on an executive who is good at knowing what matters and what does not.
From my limited vantage point, I can’t tell if President Trump is ignoring useful information from aides or useless information. The only thing I know for sure is that it would look the same to both of us.
Until he succeeds.
You might enjoy reading my book because I left out all the things you don’t care about.
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