Donald Trump is all over the media these days and savvy leaders can learn a lesson from one specific element of his behavior. This element has been a part of his business and media persona in the past, and now it is on full display in his political presentation. (For those concerned, this article is about behaviors employed by leaders and not about politics.)
What does Trump’s behavior have to do with the law? There is one particular law that Trump has mastered. It’s a law not from the legal realm but from the cybernetic realm. Let me illustrate and then explain it.
When I talk about this law most of my audiences can relate to this example: Imagine you are at the supermarket checkout line with a cart full of groceries. You have with you a 3-year-old boy who looks innocent enough, but he has had his fill of sitting in the grocery cart. He also has decided that he wants a candy bar from the display next to the checkout.
You know that he shouldn’t have the candy bar. There are lots of reasons. It’s too close to dinner. He’s already had too much sugar today. He hasn’t been obeying when you ask him to do simple things, and, in fact, he’s been downright defiant all day.
So here are the big questions: What can he do to get his way and what can you do to deny him?
You can tell him “no” nicely. You can tell him “no” sternly. You can tell him “no” loudly. You can restrain him as he reaches out of the cart to get the candy bar. You can threaten to punish him. You can . . . well, we’ve pretty much reached the end of your list. A certain level of decorum and the perceived peer pressure from other shoppers could severely limit your options.
So, what can the 3-year-old do? Whatever he wants! He can ask over and over and over again. He can yell and scream. He can cry. He can throw a tantrum. He can climb on to the counter and start taking off his clothes! He can do almost whatever he wants. And, given the surroundings and the limits of your patience, he is pretty likely to get what he wants.
The law in play here is the Law of Requisite Variety. In simple form it says that the part of the system that has the most options will control the system. Applied to human behavior, this access to options is often described as “behavioral flexibility.” The more behavioral flexibility one has, the more influence one can exert over the situation.
That certainly is the case in the example. The 3-year-old has fewer restraints and more behavioral options than most adults. Therefore, the 3-year-old can pretty much control the outcome. (Granted, there are some who might withstand the demands of the boy and ignore the disapproval of the crowd, but at what cost in stress, sanity, and snide comments?)
Now back to Donald Trump. While some might find it easy to disparage Trump with a quick comparison to the 3-year-old, it is more useful to examine how he has used behavioral flexibility to grab control and confound the media and the political establishment.
Trump starts from outside the political establishment, and he has ignored most of the perceived limits by which politicians operate. Because he is largely self-funded, he can afford to ignore the usual big money donors who could limit his actions. He just doesn’t need their approval.
Because Trump is dealing with a particularly hungry press corps he can make comments and do crazy attention-getting things that keep him in the public eye. His backtracks and clarifications continue to keep the press and competitors off balance and asking for more.
On the other hand, skilled politicians only put ideas on the table when they have been poll-tested, approved, polished, and tweaked. But what if this kind of extreme message control actually limits their ability to influence the system and lead?
As a skilled negotiator, Trump puts everything on table until it’s time to take it off. He starts with extreme demands, high expectations, and plenty of behavioral flexibility. He then scales back to the level that fits the situation. (Whether this is an appropriate presidential modus operandi will be a decision for the voters.)
What does all this mean for you as a leader? To the extent you put limits on your own behavior or allow outside pressure to limit your choices you give up influence in a situation.
Does this mean you always need to be out of the box and extreme to lead? Nope. You just need more flexibility than the people you are leading and be good at communicating your vision to others.
Remember the old story about the two campers surprised by the bear? One started putting on his shoes while the other started running. The runner turned back and yelled, “You’ll never outrun that bear.” The other said, “I don’t have to. I just have to outrun you.”
It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will outrun the bear, but, for the moment, he seems to be outrunning his opponents.
What can you change in your business world by using the Law of Requisite Variety and adding more behavioral flexibility?
Want to pump up your Language Power? Click here to find out how!
Most of the time when I introduce myself to people I ask them to think of a time when someone said something — in a conversation or maybe even in an argument — and everything changed in a moment. You’ve probably experienced that, haven’t you?
One day I was talking with a friend. We were discussing what she was doing and had planned for the next few years.
At one point in the conversation she surprised me and said that she was thinking of writing a book. I said, “Susan, that’s fantastic. Do it!”
A little reluctantly she said, “Well, I’d really like to. . .” and her voice trailed off.
“What could possibly be holding you back?” I asked.
Susan said seriously, “It’s a pretty big commitment. I, I just don’t know if I’m ready to jump in with both feet.”
As she said that a picture came to my mind of her actually jumping and landing hear with both feet. Just as quickly, another picture came to my mind. I asked, “Susan, have you ever played hopscotch?”
“Why, of course,” she said.
I asked, “So, what would it be like if you could jump in lightly, one foot at a time, like you played hopscotch?”
A big smile lit up her face and she said, “Oh, I could do that. That would be kind of fun.”
Rich’s Rule #6 says, “People make the best choices they can given the options they have available to them.”
Susan thought she had to jump in with both feet. She could have made another choice, but she wasn’t really aware of it until I brought it to her mind.
In this case, a single word, “hopscotch” brought a new way of thinking to her mind. Not only could she shift from total commitment — jumping in with both feet — to hopping lightly from foot to foot, but she also shifted from it being a serious job to a fun game.
That’s what Rich’s Rule #1 is all about, “Your world can turn on a word™.”
I hope that as you read, listen, and watch here you’ll find many words that allow your world to change in wonderful and fulfilling ways.