Here’s the paradox: The higher you rise in any hierarchy, your decisions are likely to have larger and larger consequences. Yet the higher you rise, the harder it is to get accurate feedback about your decisions.
I’ve worked with several presidents. All have made big blunders. I’ve also known and written about CEOs of big corporations who have made terrible mistakes. In every case, they had flawed systems for getting useful, accurate, and reliable feedback.
Donald Trump (whom I didn’t work with but watched his every move) had no reliable feedback. Why? Because he surrounded himself with toadies and sycophants who didn’t dare tell him the truth. He demanded that everyone around him confirm his preferred self-image of invincibility. His White House was filled with fawning lackeys (he fired anyone who didn’t grovel). He refused to hear bad news. He rejected the validity of negative media coverage.
As a result, Trump made among the dumbest decisions of any American president in history -- suppressing evidence of a potential crime, asking a foreign power for help with his reelection, inciting an attack on the Capitol. Some might say that all this was inevitable; it was built into his character. But his key character flaw was his unwillingness to hear anything negative. None of his horrific acts was necessary. Trump could have accomplished any number of goals far more easily had he not kept digging himself into ever-deeper holes. He was his own worst enemy.
Vladimir Putin is in a similar position. He has isolated himself and banned dissenting voices. He has placed obedient lapdogs even in the Fifth Service, which is supposed to provide him intelligence. So, like Trump, Putin has no reality check. According to a new report by a respected independent reporter with sources inside the Kremlin, the Fifth Service was “afraid of angering” Putin, so “simply told him what he wanted to hear.”
As a result, Putin’s attack on Ukraine has backfired terribly — on him. He badly overestimated the Russian military and underestimated Ukraine’s capacity to resist. Instead of weakening NATO, his attack has strengthened it. And now that the world’s democracies have cut off Russia’s access to the world banking system, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves have become nearly worthless.
Dictators like Putin are particularly vulnerable to inaccurate feedback. Instead of independent truth-tellers, they’re often surrounded by truth-deniers. Rather than experts and investigative journalists, their world is filled with pseudo-scientists and propaganda. In place of a free press, they have agitprop and disinformation.
Or look at China’s Xi Jinping. Why would he decide to enter into a “no limits” partnership with Moscow on the eve of Putin’s disastrous military campaign? Talk about blunders. Xi’s alliance with Russia has undermined China’s reputation and aggravated concerns among its neighbors about China’s global ambitions. It’s already prompted Taiwan to strengthen its defenses and pushed other regional powers such as Australia and Japan to declare their own interests in Taiwan’s security.
Trump, Putin, Xi — these men aren’t stupid. What’s stupid is their systems for making decisions. They don’t include naysayers. They have no way of eliciting, recognizing, or assessing useful criticism. All are trapped in halls of mirrors that reflect back at them what they want to see and hear.
The inverse relation between how high people rise in a hierarchy and the accuracy of the feedback they receive can be overcome if a leader aggressively seeks out dissenting views.
But it’s almost impossible to find dissenting views in a totalitarian system where dissent is often punished. One of the great virtues of a democracy is its multiple feedback loops – its many channels for expressing alternative viewpoints and voicing uncomfortable truths. After all, American democracy stopped Trump from doing even more damage than he did.
Yet when people like Trump, Putin, and Xi make terrible decisions, the world suffers. Worse: Putin and Xi have the power to blow up the world.
Reposted with permission from Robert Reich.