Date: April 15th, 2018 11:02 PM
THE INEFFECTIVE EXECUTIVE: HOW TRUMP’S LAZINESS IS DESTROYING HIS PRESIDENCY
Unstructured time seems to be incubating his biggest outbursts of rage.
BY T.A. FRANK
APRIL 12, 2018 3:43 PM
This past weekend, we saw yet another report, this time from Jonathan Swan at Axios, on how little time Donald Trump spends at the office. Swan reports that Trump is spending about seven hours a day in the West Wing, much of it watching TV in the dining room, then taking off for home to watch more TV. This is consistent with other reports suggesting that Trump’s schedule consists largely of coming into the office to scream at people for seven hours and then going home to tear through cheeseburgers and scream at Fox. Even before the feds raided Trump’s lawyer, the president, according to The New York Times, spent his weekend “engaged in few activities other than dinner at the Trump International Hotel.” Policy discussions seem to be so difficult that the president now gets doses of “Policy Time” once or twice a day. Trump has bowed out of a Summit of the Americas trip, sending Mike Pence in his place, so that Trump can focus on Syria, except that Pence seems to be taking the lead on that, too.
One confounding quality of these reports of Trump’s work style is that they’re at once believable and impossible. A lot of things about Donald Trump’s lifestyle seem horrible and believable (the outbursts, the fallings-out, the homes that look like they were decorated by Saddam Hussein), but one thing that seems non-horrible—too good to be true, in fact—is that the man is at once wealthy yet lazy. We read that Trump lacks the ability to focus for more than a couple of minutes, and, according to Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, such non-focus dates back decades. Yet, if avoiding concentration, dining on burgers, playing golf, and watching TV were a guarantee of riches, we’d have a severe oversupply of billionaires. The mystery of Trump’s non-work is therefore great. Something is missing or wrong.
One obvious yet tempting fallacy is that diligence corresponds reliably to effectiveness. Jimmy Carter was considered hardworking, but his White House spun its wheels. Ronald Reagan was considered work-shy, but his White House accomplished plenty. Trump could still manage to do a lot in a short workday.
Similarly, allowing your day to bulge with appointments of one sort or another doesn’t lead to good results, either. In The Effective Executive, the consultant and educator Peter Drucker wrote that most executives could ditch about a quarter of the things they feel they ought to be doing without anyone noticing or caring. (He also noted that U.S. presidents often start by accepting too many invitations, then go to the opposite extreme of declining them, before finding a balance—so it’s possible Trump is in that intermediate phase.) One example Drucker liked to cite was that of Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime adviser Harry Hopkins, who, although ailing and capable of working only a few hours a day, stayed effective by managing those few hours very well. Many C.E.O.s work hard to keep sizable stretches of their calendar blank.
We’ve also heard gasps over Trump getting his daily intelligence briefing closer to midday rather than in the morning, breaking with the habits of other presidents. “The idea that Trump doesn’t take his daily intelligence briefing until 11 A.M. is shocking just by itself,” wrote The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake back in January. Perhaps different shock thresholds are at work here, but, given that Trump is still getting a briefing every 24 hours, this seems rather like being stunned that I take a daily vitamin pill at lunch when you take it at breakfast. Are people worried we’re giving the rest of the world a head start? In that case, I have some reassuring news about time zones and the spherical shape of the planet.
Where any defense of Trump’s work style must weaken, however, is in the tabulation of results. Not for the first time, I’ll note that Trump’s presidency has, so far, been far more noise than movement. With the exception of steel tariffs, Trump has managed to do only what Republicans would have done with any other Republican president: cut taxes, confirm conservative judges, and cut taxes. (I know I mentioned cutting taxes twice, but consider that my tribute to the fertile mind of outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan.)
For those who oppose Trump’s policies, this has some advantages, since an effective president would be getting his way much more. If Trump is going into his meetings unprepared, lacking the bedrock of knowledge that is required to cut smart deals or balance competing interests, then his goals are unfulfilled, which is what his enemies would want. At the same time, Trump has come into office so unprepared for it that a lack of focus or depth carries as many troubles as benefits. Unstructured time seems to be incubating his biggest outbursts of rage, and those have mostly negative policy consequences. This week, he has been taunting Russia with promises to launch missiles at Syria. His sounding board on whether to indulge in such rhetoric is John Bolton, whose judgment on obnoxiousness is best compared to Caligula’s judgment on kink.
We can see from Trump’s own books—ghost-written though they might be—that Trump has come to value throwing himself into projects without doing his homework. With his show The Apprentice, “what I didn’t know worked for me,” Trump wrote in his book Think Like a Champion. “I just put all my concentration into what I was doing, and as problems surfaced, I dealt with them. Think of how boring it would be just to sail into things and have everything be perfect.” Indeed, anyone will agree that dull perfection is the last of Trump’s problems. The presidency seems to be undergoing the same treatment.
Such lack of preparation gets to the heart of how Trump’s approach to unstructured time seems to diverge most from that of the ideal chief executive. In a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, management scholars Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal argued that the ideal executive isn’t busy so much as “purposeful,” avoiding busyness in favor of contemplation and focus. Managers of this sort “tend to be more self-aware than most people,” with a “clarity about their intentions, in combination with strong willpower,” that allows them to “pick their goals—and their battles—with far more care than other managers do.” Does this sound like Trump, the man who sends tweets about people’s plastic surgery? Trump keeps the big picture in mind when he’s campaigning but seems unable to connect it to daily actions.
In this scenario, then, everyone finds a way to lose from Trump’s lazy busyness. Trump supporters lose because their man is ineffective. Trump antagonists lose because their enemy’s ineffectiveness goes hand in hand with other sorts of dangers to the country. Or maybe that scenario is wrong. Trump himself has boasted of his capacity for concentration and officially written that “you have to maintain your focus at all times—and your momentum.” So maybe he’s just pretending to be completely erratic. Or maybe Trump was capable of sustained focus about 40 years ago but then lost all focus and let momentum carry him the rest of the way, right into the White House. Pick whichever makes you feel best, but that’s as much as I’ve got to offer. I’ve already put in seven hours.