Leadership in Uncertainty: Trump, Putin, and a ‘both/and’ world

The Creation Museum in Kentucky and Donald Trump have more in common than they probably realise: mainly that, if you are the least inclined to wonder about or doubt time-honoured, scientifically-based truths, their alternative interpretations of reality can be very, very convincing.

It should be no surprise, then, that Trump and Vladimir Putin have a strong affinity. Russia has a very long cultural and political history of skilful and wholehearted manipulation of reality. Think of all the identikit Soviet politicians airbrushed in and out of May Day photographs in Red Square, right up through the Yes You Did/No We Didn’t recent professional sport doping scandals. For the Russians, changing horses seamlessly in mid-stream could easily be another Olympic sport; it’s not an issue of True or False, but simply a case of reality having changed, and everyone changing their mental landscape accordingly.

For various historic and cultural reasons, Russia finds it a lot less work and trouble to effectively rewrite history, than to deal with the disconnect between what suits their national agenda and what the rest of the world sanctions. It’s awkward and inefficient to argue the point and establish an objective consensus. If Truth is indeed subjective, Russia may have invented Post-Truth.

Throughout Trump’s campaign, and since his election, we see him doing the same: reconfiguring accepted reality (Meryl Streep is a decent actress; US intelligence is fairly reliable) and shrugging off inconvenient evidence as propaganda, ‘fake news’, and anti-intelligence.

This relates to conversations we’ve had in CoDE about the interaction between:

  • Decreasing trust in public institutions;
  • A change in the connection between opinion & evidence (i.e. fake news);
  • How we’re responding to the proliferation of information channels by distorting our view of the world through selection bias….

…leading to an ‘echo chamber’ effect in political discourse (i.e. we’re only talking to people who think like us, and everyone else is just plain crazy or stupid – and then we wonder why society is fracturing).

Most of this is not new – any historian can point to parallels in the past.  What is new is the third bullet – proliferation of information channels — CoDE’s territory — leading to some weird (and fascinating, from a research perspective) phenomena.

The Creation Museum, Trump and Putin are all attempting to make sense of a confusing, uncomfortable, overwhelming and unmanageable reality, where once-contradictory truths inexplicably exist side by side, and the dualistic perception of the old order (black/white; right/wrong; male/female; science/religion) is increasingly fluid, ambiguous, shaded grey, and trans- or multi-gender. Where walls have come down, they are building new ones – figuratively, if not yet literally.

It leads, as we see in these two heads of unmanageably vast, powerhouse nations, to inconsistency and unpredictability, not to say apparent extreme unreliability, which then instils certainly in the US’s citizenry an unsettling sense of uncertainty and ambiguity about what is true and what they stand for as a nation. And if you can’t rely on the villain to play the villain, so the hero can be the hero, what happens next? Two nations that were instinctive and historic nemeses have turned out to actually be rather compatible and similar: the US and Russia traditionally go their own way and make no excuses for who they are and what they do, justifying interference in the affairs of other sovereign nations as a preservation of their interests amounting to a kind of self-defence. And the best defence is generally accepted to be a good offence.

At CoDE, we see business struggling to make sense of and navigate through the constantly-shifting ground of a digital world. Can the apparent inconsistencies of discovery-led decision making actually be valuable at times of great uncertainty? Increasingly we are identifying solutions that are ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’, and embrace apparently contradictory aspects of the same problem to power an unconventional solution.

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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.