The Lack of Strategic Thinking in Election 2016
One of the problems facing the technology industry right now is the critical lack of strategic thinking. Hedge fund managers and activist investors increasingly are directing companies, forcing tactical decisions that raise stock prices over the short term, largely by destroying the firm’s long-term viability. What makes this trend particularly problematic is that most top executives don’t seem to understand they are destroying their companies until it’s too late.
This also speaks to Joe Tucci’s and Michael Dell’s recent partnership as a massive effort to remove that threat from both of their companies. Rather than once again picking on a firm like HPE, which is a showcase for this horrid foundation for decision making, I thought it would be interesting to explore the Trump and Clinton campaigns. My contention is that had either candidate thought strategically, neither would have run for the office of president.
I’ll close with my product of the week: an interesting Samsung smart refrigerator that may define the future of the smart home — and fortunately is without any exploding battery risk.
Thinking Strategically vs. Tactically
We often define “tactical” and “strategic” thinking by time. A tactical decision tends to be more reactive and implemented with a 12-month window, while a strategic decision tends to be proactive and implemented over a far longer period.
Deciding to date someone would be tactical, while marriage should be strategic. I’d argue that marriages often fail because they often are entered for tactical reasons. The parties are thinking more about how much they like to “date” than about how well their goals and ideals will align in the long term.
In the case of this year’s election, both candidates want to be president — likely for different reasons. Both started with powerful brands that were leveraged successfully into building businesses or getting stratospheric speaking fees and funding global and very lucrative charities.
This reflects a downside that I doubt either fully assessed. Unlike a typical politician who isn’t as well compensated, both Clinton and Trump have huge assets tied to their names, as well as reputations that are at risk, regardless of whether they win or lose. Neither can exit this process without incurring most of the damage now.
They are both effectively locked into a path that will leave them badly damaged with respect to personal wealth and influence once this process concludes, regardless of the outcome. That is likely because neither really thought through the risks and rewards strategically.
Donald Trump’s Brand
Trump entered the election process with a very powerful personal brand and a reputation for being both very successful and very rich. His brand is placed on all of his properties — not an insignificant portion of which are casinos, where patrons — particularly Asian patrons — connect his brand with winning.
However, much of this is a false front. He is neither as rich nor as successful as people believe him to be, and he actually seems to be operating very close to collapse. He isn’t alone. Others, like Elon Musk, also operate on a razor’s edge between impressive success and catastrophic failure.
The perception that Trump is a success is likely his most valuable asset and is most responsible for keeping him in private jets and penthouse suites, as opposed to a nice house in the country and a neverending issue of paying the rent.
If Trump loses, he will have lost to Hillary Clinton, who isn’t seen as a strong politician because she basically was anointed by her party. Thanks largely to Colin Powell, she also is viewed both as incompetent and unsuccessful, particularly by Trump’s base.
This doesn’t just make Trump a loser but a super loser, having lost to Clinton, who lost to Obama and is seen as unelectable. This means he not only will have virtually eliminated the perception that he can’t lose, but also will be seen as a person who can’t win. The impact on his income should be not only dramatic but also significant enough to shift him from profit to loss. The resulting loss as people avoid his casinos and brand in general could be catastrophic.
If he were to win, things wouldn’t get much better. He’d enter not only with the Democrats but also a critical mass of Republicans against him, and no real political experience. That suggests his presidency would be catastrophically bad, and with his personal brand seriously damaged by the election process, he could face financial collapse while in office. The result would be the absolute destruction of his brand and further deterioration of his image from that of a successful billionaire to that of a punchline.
You’d think, given the risk, that exiting the process might allow him to recover his brand, but that seems doubtful. As president, he’d at least have access to resources that would help him recover it, but his unwillingness to learn from his mistakes suggests that outcome is exceedingly remote. He is kind of screwed.
Hillary Clinton’s Reputation
Clinton entered the campaign as one of the most powerful women in the world. Largely seen as successful as a senator and particularly as secretary of state, she could have enjoyed a long successful career as a very highly paid speaker, power broker and charity manager. The election process so far has reduced her perceived power as a power broker. Her positions against Wall Street have devalued her considerably as a speaker, and her charity is at risk of being positioned as a liability to many current contributors.
So, even before the election process is complete, the perceptions that formerly surrounded her will have been badly, if not critically, damaged — destroying much of the financial engine under her relatively high income. Recall that the Clintons complained that his term in office effectively broke them financially.
If Clinton should lose, thing would get worse. Already increasingly seen as unable to do what is necessary to accomplish key goals, she will have lost to Trump, who is positioned by his party as unelectable. This suggests that anything he does in office that damages the country likely will be blamed on her inability to execute.
Trump is known to be vindictive, and that behavior, backed with the power of his office and access to still-confidential information on both Hillary and Bill, could result in a level of brand damage and potential criminal charges and litigation that would be unprecedented in their lives, if not the history of the nation.
There is an unacceptably high chance this not only could result in her being broke again, but also facing a high risk of a jail sentence. I expect that Trump would pull no punches in seeking to get even with her for the damage he would perceive she had done. (Trump doesn’t accept that he makes mistakes, and he’ll likely blame his own financial problems on Clinton.)
If she wins, things also get worse — though likely not as much as in Trump’s case, because Trump effectively would be neutralized as a threat. Still, she would face a Republican majority that hates her more than they hate the current sitting president, as well as a not-inconsequential number of Sanders supporters who think she cheated to get the job.
The effort to neutralize her will be unprecedented, both from within and without her party, and her now-historic inability to execute likely would define her term. There is a very high probability that she would be forced out of the office early (the same is true of Trump) and a near certainty that she would be tarnished further by her aging husband’s increasing inability to make prudent decisions (also highlighted by Colin Powell’s leaked email).
Exiting the White House, she could be in even worse financial shape than the last time but lacking the vitality, due to age, to recover. Granted, as in Trump’s case, things would be marginally better if she were to win rather than lose — but strategically, this looks like a lose/lose outcome for both candidates.
The strategic decision at this point would be for both candidates to meet and agree to withdraw, focusing on brand recovery and partnering for mutual brand recovery, given that both have the same problem. There is zero probability of that happening, not only because both candidates are unable to think strategically, but both also because both are likely at the point where they are more likely to shoot each other than to partner.
Plan B would be to work far harder — not only to ensure a win, but also to ensure the ability to execute the office of president successfully. That means aggressively reducing the conflict in their own parties — not through rhetoric alone, but by embracing proactively critical aspects of the elements positioned against them, and turning them from liabilities to assets.
In addition, both candidates would need to address their own core behaviors more aggressively. Clinton has to focus more on sharp execution and Trump on doing his homework instead of skating. Both need to be ready to enter the office running and be fully capable of avoiding the mistakes that have crippled both candidates’ careers and campaigns. At the heart of this is the willingness to accept mistakes and faults, and prioritize addressing them.
Since neither candidate seems willing to do that either, I expect that regardless of who it is, the winner eventually will have deep regrets about running — if they’re not harbored already. Had they thought this through strategically — like the computer in the movie War Games eventually did — both candidates would have concluded that the only truly good decision would have been not to play in the first place.
One other point: More people, particularly politicians, should practice thinking strategically. It would lead to a lot more good decisions and far fewer catastrophic ones.