It has been said that some 100 psychiatrists expressed doubts about Trump’s mental fitness to be president of the USA. Certainly reports of his heated phone calls with heads of governments of some of America’s traditional allies suggest something is not quite right. And his ramblings on Twitter tend to reveal traits unusual in a president. His first four weeks in office generated a flood of critical media response. To attribute his actions to mental deficiencies is to underestimate the dangers he presents.
Trump is simply the latest blinkered and confused leader trying to drag his bewildered people through an increasingly complex world in which the old simplistic styles of management do not work any more. Command-and-control from the top is plainly counterproductive nowadays but almost all leaders are unaware of that simple fact or they refuse to accept it, as it would question their ‘right to rule’.
Admittedly being the president of the most powerful country on earth Trump’s warped view of how the political economy works threatens national as well as global peace.
‘Leader and follower’ model
For centuries the world followed a model founded on the principle that the affairs of nations, large organisations, etc. should be left to a few gifted people to manage from the top of steep and remote hierarchies. These leaders were of course rewarded well for their assumed talents and their supposed ability efficiently to navigate the affairs of their underlings through good and bad times.
Fundamentally, the top-down model is based on a specific view of how social, political, and economic systems function and, therefore, how they should be managed. Within that conception the ruthless and determined leader has been seen as the ideal manager who achieves results quickly and efficiently. The model went through various transformations and justifications identified by Comte (1798-1857) as Theological era, a Metaphysical era (as was the case in ancient Greece), and finally a Scientific era.
Elites saw this latest ‘scientific phase’ as a justification for their exclusive position and rewards and one that could not possibly be questioned. However, science itself has expanded in recent decades that raised questions about the adequacy of the model (see later).
Trump coming from the relatively simple deal-making field of real estate and not having been exposed to more intricate matters such as the international political economy is completely secure in his simplistic beliefs and is blissfully unaware of the pitfalls.. As explained later, his behaviour is extreme but is no different from other leaders but his position of brute power greatly magnifies the problems and threats. The misguided questions about his mental capabilities are both inevitable and misleading. He knows, and enjoys, what he is doing but is unaware of the dangers.
Traditional ‘scientific management’
The skewed rewards system for leaders is not simply the result of greedy bosses in positions where they could demand disproportionate benefits. Although there is a large element of self-interest, the matter goes deeper than that: well-respected thinkers have put forward ideas about ‘scientific management’ that supported the concept of the ‘inspired and determined leader’.
Several advocates of ‘scientific management’ have had a lasting impact on future generations. Two are mentioned here but others are equally significant. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) is credited with being the father of ‘scientific management’, also known as Taylorism. His thoughts were inspired in part by his mechanical engineering background.
Some of today’s popular management concepts could at least in part be traced back to Taylorism. Its rigidity is clearly seen in many leaders’ actions to this day. Trump is no exception.
Another early thinker; this time approaching management ‘science’ from the top down was Henri Fayol (1841-1925). Significantly, he also came from an engineering background. Fayol pioneered a theory of business administration that he felt applies to other disciplines, such as politics. He defined ‘14 Principles of Management’ which included among other topics “authority”, “command”, “hierarchical structures”, and “order”.
The above ideas were influenced to some degree by Newton’s (1642-1726) laws of motion. It was thought that nothing was beyond the wit of humankind if you can predict the movement of the planets in space to the second! The natural sciences, it was concluded, left little to be discovered, and it was only a matter of course before practitioners extended the same ideas to social sciences. After that it was only a small step to apply scientific management to politics and economics.
Trump is wedded to ‘scientific management’
To link Trump to science might offend many people but it is obvious that he is a believer in resolute leadership. In his case this is being taken to extremes as seen in his various pronouncements even in the first month after entering the White House. His background in deal making in real estate and his inexperience in politics determines to a large extent his attitudes and actions. Basically, he cannot help being what he is. He is a believer in zero-sum negotiations: there are only winners and losers. To observers, and looked at superficially, his brutish behaviour mistakenly suggests mental aberration.
‘Scientific management’, however, is itself in the early stages of major revision. Science’s scope is being radically expanded beyond the mechanistic or Newtonian concepts that have been in fashion for so many centuries. That does not mean rejection of previous viewpoints. For certain purposes ‘mechanistic science’ offering good predictability is still the most appropriate way to ‘command-and-control’ certain activities such as an industrial assembly line. It would have been impossible to place a satellite into space or to land a man on the moon without the certainties offered by mechanistic science.
However, in other fields the certainties offered by traditional concepts have not yielded adequate results. This is especially the case in activities involving human beings: politics, economics, and large-scale businesses. It was discovered in recent decades that there are ‘complex adaptive systems’ that behave radically differently from mechanistic systems. They offer less predictability, and emergent properties that are full of unexpected outcomes. Under these circumstances, softer styles of management based on gradual change and trial and error have been found to provide better results. This would be alien territory that would smack of weakness to the likes of Trump.
Examples of changed management styles can be seen for instance in the Toyota Production System (TPS) and in the ‘productive ward’ that was tried in some hospitals in the English National Health System. Of course the intricately subtle system of government in operation in Switzerland is the ultimate example but that again would be totally perplexing to Trump.
Yearning for the ‘old simpler times’
The traditional model of ‘leader and follower’ worked reasonably well in the past. Humankind has always sought protection from the rough and tumble of life. In the beginning, people put their faith in various forms of religion. In some societies that religious phase continues today as seen for instance in parts of the Middle East. It makes life seem so simple and manageable but it is useless in practical terms as seen in the chaos in that region.
Later on, religion lost ground to science as known at that time. The scientific era continues, but the envelope has expanded in recent decades to embrace complex phenomena along with the more familiar mechanistic systems.
Basically, life is becoming progressively more complex with increasing numbers of interactions that make prediction and control difficult and often impossible. In recent decades this complexity has outstripped the ability of leaders to control events as they did in the past. Crises arise with regular frequency and each one is worse than the one before. Current leaders try to suggest these are separate events but that is not the case. The system is telling us a new, softer style of management is needed.
The age of populist leaders
Unfortunately, this has produced two linked phenomena that are now all too obvious: appearance of ‘extreme leaders’ who come to power on the back of a wave of rampant ‘populism’. They make outrageous promises, mainly along the lines of taking society back to a glorious past. Trump’s promise to “make America great again” is typical of the style. The same is happening in other parts of the world. The precise words might be different but the intentions are the same.
Arrival of Trump, therefore, was only to be expected. These leaders make extraordinary claims that appeal to people suffering the consequences of, and fed-up with, persistent failures of past leaders. They sell moonshine.
The Middle East has experienced that problem for many decades. Its problems have been blamed on invasions, civil wars, Islam and so on. Leaders of the Islamic State and other groups are typical of the breed. The syndrome is also noticeable in Europe as seen in the rise in extreme right and left political leaders. And now the affliction has crossed the Atlantic to appear in the USA. Differences between all these new leaders are matters of style rather than substance.
Trump is not alone in misinterpreting how affairs unfold in politics, economics and large-scale organisations and the new styles of management that these activities impose. Most politicians (and chairmen and chief executive officers of large companies) think precisely the same as Trump. To make matters worse, it is not in their best interests to adopt a different management model that would compromise their position and rewards.
Trump is exceptional only because his misunderstanding of the new demands of leadership in the complex modern world might well prove to be dangerously costly not only to the USA but to the rest of humanity.