The power of unpredictability

Written by
Robert Rowland Smith

07 May 2019

07 May 2019 • by Robert Rowland Smith

There are many types of power, and Donald Trump represents at least three of them. First, he had already accumulated a lot of money before becoming president, which brings not only purchasing power but influence. Then, he took on the power that came with the office of president of the US, though it should be noted that the two do not automatically go together - think how much power Nixon lost through Watergate. The third type of power enjoyed by Donald Trump is perhaps the most interesting and, unlike the first two, it is available to us all.

One of Trump’s most egregious characteristics is that he tends to shift his position in an unpredictable and capricious fashion. In 2015, for example, he began by saying that “on a humanitarian basis, you have to” accept Syrian refugees. Two months later, he said “we cannot allow them into this country, period.”

The following year he said he believed in increasing taxes for the wealthy, only to row back on his position in a subsequent interview. He has been similarly equivocal on abortion, healthcare, the minimum wage, legalising recreational marijuana, transgender people being allowed to use the bathroom of their choice, gun control, and many other issues. It is hard to say whether such flip-flopping has been conscious or unconscious. Either way, the net result is that nobody knows for sure exactly what president Trump stands for beyond his own self-interest. In short, he keeps people guessing.

In this ability to keep people guessing lies a third type of power. Trump’s style could be described as “leadership without direction” or, more precisely, leadership with multiple unforeseen changes of direction. This places those whom he leads in a position of uncertainty. They never quite know what he will say or do next.

Uncertainty is disempowering. Not only does uncertainty make it difficult to plan ahead, thus reducing the scope for self-determinism, it also reinforces the gap between the leader and everybody else. With the president assuming the right to change his mind at whim, others begin to crave stability and so feel their vulnerability all the more. They are held in thrall.

The same logic carries over to the workplace. Many of us have known managers who are similarly inconsistent. One day they want this, the next day that. Yesterday it was growth. Today it’s cost-cutting. Last week you said it was all about client A. This week client B is the one to focus on. In my appraisal you said you wanted me to be more strategic, but since then you’ve just given me a list of tasks. And so on. It can be confusing, even infuriating. In response to which, three options arise: suck it up; quit; or become a leader yourself and do the same.

No matter how you respond, the underlying effect of such inconsistency is that it reinforces the power dynamic between leader and led. If tacking this way and that is the prerogative of the leader, the led are left to follow haplessly behind. Fundamentally, leaders who exploit this prerogative are showing off their power for its own sake. They change their mind because they can.

Needless to say, such behaviour flies in the face of the literature on leadership. That literature stresses the importance of leaders setting a clear and consistent direction, even laying out a ‘vision’ for all to walk reverently towards.

And yet, there is just as much, if not more, power in doing the opposite. We may long for our leaders to be unswerving in their statements, but all leaders will know, if only dimly, that if power is their motivation, that power will in no way be diminished if they do indeed swerve, and swerve again.