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13 December 2015

Trump and the feedbacks of fear

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I have been wondering this week, listening to Donald Trump spin fear into a frenzy of hatred, whether we need a different name for the sort of “leadership” he offers. If “leadership” is about bringing people into a better future by helping them act out of their largest selves, what would we call the act of bringing people into a darker future by bringing them into their smallest selves? Unleadership? There is handwringing about his candidacy in all places people have even a rudimentary grasp of history (an excellent example was this NY Times editorial). I’ve been wondering whether ideas about adult development or complexity theory have anything to offer us as we make sense of this phenomenon—and think of ways to combat it.

The most cursory glance through history will show us that those who wanted to rule have often used fear and hatred as the attractor for power. Both behavioural research and brain research show us that the fear reaction in humans is necessarily massive which makes great sense—fear has protected us from danger in the past and helped us pass our genes along to the next generation. In many ways, fear is adaptive.

In a simple world of cause and effect, where the fear of something helps us escape from danger, the feedback loops are straightforward and the answers fairly obvious. If a rattlesnake is poised to attack, do what you can to escape from it or kill it to save yourself. The response cycles are short and the feedback is clear; you’ll know pretty fast whether you made the right move or not.

The feedback loops of fear are not so straightforward in our complex world. Here we reach into a complex space where we can’t know until afterwards whether we have made a good move or not, and it might in fact be far afterwards before we know—if we ever know at all. Donald Trump’s inane comments this week might have positive consequences if enough people line up against him. They might have negative consequences if he incites more hate speech in others and that speech leads to hateful acts. And because the time lags might be long and the direct ties unclear, we might never really know. But we can make some pretty solid guesses about what is more likely to attract helpful behavior rather than unhelpful behavior.

Knowing that something is creating a fear response in you does not keep the fear response from happening. I remember noticing a pattern between George W Bush’s raising of the terrorist threat rating and his polling numbers (a slip in the numbers seemed to signal a rise in the threat rating), but still I would feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins when I heard the announcement moving from yellow to orange as I took the Metro to work. Fear isn’t something you can think your way out of in a hurry—all the more reason for our leaders to be careful about the ways they ramp up our fear in the first place..

So the leadership question in my mind becomes how to attract what is best about humans instead of ramping out those things that make us smaller and more self-protective. With Trump pulling the Republican slate farther towards fear and hatred, are there other attractors other candidates—Republican or Democrat—could create or strengthen? Is the foundation of the US as a place to escape religious persecution a strong enough attractor? What about connecting to the immigrant past that lives in all of us who are not Native American in heritage? Most Americans found their way across a frightening ocean and landed on a bewildering shore in order to escape horrors at home, or to find a better life (or both).

Keith and I have written a book about complexity in order to help leaders get a better handle on how to lead in an uncertain, interdependent, and volatile world. But perhaps we also need to understand how to follow in such a world, how to allow our leaders to support us to make sense of complexity without pushing us back into simple and unhelpful solutions. We need leaders and followers to collaborate to bring out the best in us rather than the worst. This is not just a business imperative, but a human, a planetary imperative. Seems like a pretty powerful motivation for us to figure out a new set of attractors in this political landscape.

7 thoughts on “Trump and the feedbacks of fear”

  1. Thanks Jennifer. I disagree with everything Trump stands for and also wonder what is going on. My take is that we need to add another dimension to the discussion beyond fear and complexity. I think Alexander Haslam’s work (and others in the Social Psychology field) has part of the explanation in their Identity Leadership approach. Rather than being an “unleader”, in terms of gaining a solid followership he is clearly very successful so far. Identity Leadership principles could explain why and offer a way to think about how a different outcome might emerge.

  2. whoops… didnt mean to submit… 1. A leader must be “one of us” ie the strongest “archetypical prototype” of the group (followers); 2. A leader must be seen to be “doing it for us” ie doing it for the group not themselves or for others; 3. A leader must manufacture a “sense of us” (done in this case by identifying the “them” and ensuring that “we” are different to “them”); 4. A leader must “make us matter” ie deliver, or attempt to deliver, the manifest reality of a sense of “us” in the material world eg be the visible mouthpiece via this election campaign for the worldview that the followers hold as their identity in the world. If the followers have an identity as “the ones oppressed by political correctness” (an intellectually bankrupt expression if there ever was one) then the one who is the most “politically incorrect” and can liberate them from their “chains” is likely to be their leader.

    See: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984314000514
    and: http://www.amazon.com/The-Psychology-Leadership-Alexander-Haslam-ebook/dp/B00466H54I

    So, from that perspective Trump is a “text book” leader. Not the kind we would follow but clearly a lot of Americans are. Given that politics is a numbers game, and Trump seems to be narrowing the potential pool from which he can draw votes (reduced numbers of Mexicans and Muslims, I presume, maybe incorrectly), the question is whether another candidate emerges as the “text book leader” with a more numerous followership whose identity incorporates a set of identity values different enough from Trump’s.

    Those values in the hands of a leader who can be an “identity empressario” in the way Trump is might represent the attractors that we all hope for. I think the things that are “best of us as humans” reside in enough Americans for someone other than Trump to win. The question is whether there is a candidate with enough courage and nouse to promote those values (using the 4 aspects Haslam identifies) in the face of the stark reality that those darker forces appear to dwell in many of the same hearts.

    The problem is that Trump is the best empressario in a game where the fears he promotes have been cultivated by successive leaders from both sides of politics. He is a creation of the previous use of the politics of us and them. A frankenstein. As humans part of our success is that we pay much more attention to fear than love. Trump is great at offering a “way out of fear”. How many Americans can see that the path leads to hell? I have no idea. The optimist within me thinks enough will. I hope I am right.

    Thanks for your work and all that you do.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hello Murray,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. I know the definition of leadership I use is not the common one, but it is a deep preference of mine that leadership is not just about the things you mention (which are obviously important) but about leaders actually bringing people to a version of their biggest selves–not a Trump attribute. I am captivated by your image of Trump as a Frankenstein. I know that the saying is that we get the leaders we deserve. I hope we can rise together and get some genuinely good leaders, especially in a country with so much power and influence as the US.

      I’ll continue musing on this topic, though I totally agree with you that complexity ideas won’t solve it. Perhaps it is just me howling in the dark and hoping to use the echoes to find some light…
      Thanks for thinking with me.
      ps For a smile–laughing in the dark–you could try this http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/will-ferrell-george-bush-snl_566d9818e4b0e292150e39c6

  3. Thanks Jennifer.

    Re: the link to the Huffington Post. The video has been set to exclude Australian audiences (and, I guess, other non US places). So, I couldn’t watch it. Globalisation is selective, it seems. 😉 I think I would have enjoyed it. Thanks anyway.

    I understand your preference for restricting the word leadership to situations where “leaders are actually bringing people to a version of their biggest selves”, and perhaps in that way we do need another word for the Trumps of this world. My interest in leadership looks at the question “Why is that group of people following that person?” irrespective of whether I like or agree with what that person stands for or not. My logic is that a deeper understanding of the dynamic between the leader and the followers might yield ideas about the “safe to fail” experiments that we can apply where people are indeed attempting to the bring the “biggest selves” to the fore. Also, what ways can we influence the followership so that the following is reduced when we perceive that is a desirable thing to do (to go to your original question)? Humour is one way to do that and there are more fundamental processes at play, I think.

    The value that Haslam’s work brought to my thinking about leadership is that it focusses more on the followship than the leadership in answering my “big question”. Without a followership there can be no leadership. How then are followerships constructed? For where do they emerge? How are they maintained? Where do they go when the leader “loses” them?

    In Australia we had our own “frankenstein” in Abbott who, I am sad to say, was a construct of the hearts of enough Australians that he temporarily gained ascendency. Correspondingly I am heartened to see that Australians also rejected him when they realised where he was leading us. Turnbull is struggling to manage the complexity between those who still believe in the “sewn together messiah” and those who think we need a more effective response to the complexity that faces us. His success and longevity will depend, I believe, upon whether or not he can persuade enough followers that he is the best representative of the identity they currently hold and whether he can influence that identity so that as a country we move in a direction more in line with our “biggest selves”.

    We want something to “believe in”. Leaders rise and fall on their ability to articulate the “bigger picture” and the “vision”. I think that “believing” in something in this context is an expression of our identity – the object in our consciousness that we are “believing in” is the manifestation of our self identity (a projection / attribution, in other words). That is why, in my view, the work of Social Identity Theory has so much to offer Leadership studies.

    I will get off my soap box now. It’s time to wash dishes. 😉

    Thanks again,

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hello Murray,
      Grr. I’m not in the US but feel frustrated when things are blocked to our part of the world. Google SNL Will Farrell George Bush and you’ll get something to watch.
      Yes, the issue of follwership is fascinating–and, in the Trump context, frightening. One of the questions I think I’m too afraid to look at squarely is how do we help get followers to see and relate to the shades of grey that the world requires these days? I understand our desire for a simple solution and how that desire ramps up when we’re afraid or anxious, but I also know enough about adult development to know that there just are lots of people who can’t yet see grey. How do we help that in an increasingly-grey world?
      Now I have to get to the beach. No dishes for me this week–I’m on holiday!

  4. ” how do we help get followers to see and relate to the shades of grey that the world requires these days?”

    Now THAT’S a big question!! Possible even THE big question if you will forgive the binary here. Lol.

    So, some thoughts, for what they are worth:
    The context is complex so small, evolutionary changes via safe-to-fail experiments are what is required.
    This will take time.
    We are doing it already. Your work, books, lectures, blog posts, etc are part of the process, I believe.

    We need to start young. While it is true that we don’t “turn grey” until mid-life or so, I think there are some ideas that we can teach young children / adults that might speed up their transitions and generate a little more grey at even the Self Authoring stage. For example: what if instead of a firm commitment to the “I am right, you are wrong” state of a young adult (“I see the problems of the world and know how they should be fixed”), we were able to inculcate a firm commitment to a process of “I am curious about your state of mind about this and together we can work out how to change the world” (or something like that). In other words, find ways of making the content of a blank and white process more conducive to development.

    Yesterday I had the delight of having lunch with a person in their late 20’s who was able to articulate the pitfalls of what she called the “judgement game”. She had a very firm grasp of the value of a enquiring into the meaning-making of others. I notice among my adult children that the instant international connectivity and collective discussion via social media has distinct upsides as well as the obvious downsides. I think that the influence of social media is, in itself, a fascinating experiment in regard to adult development. Whether it is “safe-to-fail” is yet to be seen. 😉

    So, right now, with the Trump example, I don’t think we can change his followership. However, my hunch is that there are enough people who hold a different view so that Trump will not win the day. What is salient is that the meaning-making that manufactured Trump and Abbott (and others of their ilk) is abundant and those of us with more grey are involved in arenas that strengthen a more conscious meaning-making.

    For me, that is continuing my work with young adults and finding other ways to engage with them. My logic is that while I could work with existing leaders (at the “top”, so to speak), seeking out and working with the “emerging leaders” (who might currently be considered a followership) gives a strategic advantage to the process of social change because the new leaders will emerge from that followership and therefore be the best archetypical representation of an identity that includes curiosity about meaning-making, social justice, inter-connectivity, cross-nationstate links, equity, etc, etc. I believe that the leaders we need now and into the future are an emergent property of the complexity of meaning-making currently existing. So, my focus is on the meaning-making of the followership and then hoping the leaders we need will “pop out” of that.

    That is my contribution to the experiment, anyway. Probably hopelessly optimistic and naive. I guess that I am simply applying what seems to be true for me about leadership and followership in the context of social change in order to feel I am doing my best to make a difference. Every approach is required! Top-down, bottom-up, sideways-across!

    Enjoy the beach and holiday!

    Best wishes,

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