Presidential Leadership in Chaos: Ian reflects on the recent US presidential debate and what it means for leadership. 

Full Transcription below:

I hadn’t intended it to be like this. When I started the podcast at the beginning of the pandemic called Leadership in Chaos, the idea was to try to provide guidance for leaders and managers who were trying to struggle with the uncertainty. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the title itself was a double entendre where leadership itself is in chaos.
This has been sneaking up on us, probably over the last six months, as we observe the uncertainty unfold and political leaders and how they’ve tried to deal with it and tackle with it mostly, with some rare exceptions, ineptly. But if the notion has been slowly creeping up on us in true Halloween style, it shouted “boo” very loudly last Tuesday, at what masqueraded as a presidential debate in the US.

The most common description across the international press that I read, and the word that was most commonly used, ironically, was the word chaos. The word debate definitely transgresses the trade descriptions act. But I guess what was more chilling about the encounter is that it supposedly pitted one against the other, the two candidates, one of whom is going to be, by November, the leader of the free world. It came across far less like a debate and reminded me far more of the Frankie goes to Hollywood, “two tribes” video from the 1980s, which portrays a mud wrestling match between an American president and a Russian president. And on the subject of Russian presidents, the person who’s likely to have been most pleased by Tuesday night’s spectacle is the current sitting Russian president, who probably topped up with a double vodka at the sight of what he was seeing, marveling, probably, that there was nothing in his arsenal that could destabilize democracy as much as what he was seeing in the 90 minutes.

On a lighter note, I noticed in the FT comments section, there was a contribution from somebody who went under the moniker of Berlusconi and their quote was, and I quote, “And you thought I was bad?” unquote. This is humour, but it feels like humour from the gallows.

Recently, I came across an op ed from a New York Times journalist who wrote a piece about how, during the pandemic as a means of escape, he had immersed himself in a decade from the past. The title of the article was called, “Go live in another decade”. So what he did was, during lockdown, he virtually immersed himself in the decade between the 1960s and 1970s. He listened to the debates of the time, the politics of the time, the interviews of the time, the speeches of the time. He immersed himself in popular culture. In fact, he did it so absolutely that he felt like he was living in the 1960s and 1970s. The most interesting finding was that when he emerged back into the current reality of the modern day was the shock of the contrast between this era and that era.

Like the boiling frog, we don’t notice the changes when they’re daily and incremental. But in coming back into the present world, from his happy immersion, what he discovered was what he describes as “a barrage of events so overwhelming that each new day scrambles every day that proceeds it”. It feels to me like if we’re not at a Watergate moment, Tuesday’s debate represents a watershed moment.

So let’s take Tuesday night’s debacle as a measure, or a litmus test, of where leadership currently is in 2020, albeit in the US. And let’s contrast it or measured against some of the themes we’ve talked about during the last six months of leadership and how to lead in chaos and uncertainty. How to be, and represent, calm. How to create clarity. The need for connection. The importance of building trust. How to listen and listen through our own personal biases. How to motivate and engage and how to role model. If they indeed are the measures of good leadership, then Tuesday’s debacle scored a resounding “no grade”.
In my experience, however, things are as they are, and what we witnessed for 90 minutes were two limbic brains slugging it out in a Coliseum, risibly titled “a debate”. In the red corner, we had Trump, who turned up and acted like a semiautomatic shotgun. Whilst, in the blue corner, we had Biden trying to dodge the bullets and return some ammunition . This is what happens when two limbic brains encounter one another. Or, as Frankie goes to Hollywood described it, when two tribes go to war.

Trump was undoubtedly the aggressor. He’s been operating with a survival brain on high alert for months. Why? Well he’s fighting for his political life. He’s behind in the polls. The deadline of the election is getting closer. He’s, apparently, in great personal debt. In summary, he’s backed into a corner. And when somebody backed into a corner, they will say anything or do anything to survive. It’s simply primal.

Unfortunately for us, and here I’m reminded of two phrases, one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who says that every organization is the extension of one man’s shadow, and the second phrase is that the fish rots from the head. And malign leadership has real consequences for society. The Residue is a polarized society. One that’s full of division and social unrest, and it’s only going to escalate from here on in.

I’ll leave the final words to Frankie goes to Hollywood, whose lines went “when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score”. When leaders are obsessed with scoring points, it’s society that has to live with the Residue and pick up the collateral damage.

This has been an unintended detour from our normal course of menu. So, next week, we will resume normal service.

Until then, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected. And if you can, stay off social media.

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