Blog: Reframing

Can a loose cannon have a strategy?

30 April 2018

So…can a loose cannon have a strategy? Sure, once we realize that we use the word strategy in a way that we never define it.

Strategy may be defined by intention, but it has to be realized in action.  An intended strategy looks forward, as some sort of plan or vision into the future—whether or not it will be realized. A realized strategy looks back, to some existing pattern in action, namely consistency in behavior—whether or not it was intended.

So…can a loose cannon have a strategy? Sure, once we realize that we use the word strategy in a way that we never define it.

Strategy may be defined by intention, but it has to be realized in action.  An intended strategy looks forward, as some sort of plan or vision into the future—whether or not it will be realized. A realized strategy looks back, to some existing pattern in action, namely consistency in behavior—whether or not it was intended.

How about Donald Trump? With regard to migrants and refugees, Muslim and Mexican, he has certainly had strategy, intended as well as partly realized: keep them out and get them out. In other words, his actions have been consistent with his stated intentions: With regard to much else, however, by the dictionary definition of strategy, Trump has been a loose cannon, shooting off his mouth in all directions, frequently contradicting, not only reason, but also himself. Where’s the strategy in that?

As for realize strategy, a host of Trump’s actions speak louder than his words, and differently, in fact rather consistently. Consider the following ones: picking fights with established allies while cozying up to autocrats; challenging existing trade agreements and long-standing alliances; repeatedly attacking the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies; emasculating the Department of State by leaving so many posts unfilled while proposing drastic reductions in its budget, alongside that of other major departments; and championing tax cuts that could paralyze the government and wreak havoc in the society.

Pattern may be in the eyes of the beholder, but it is tough not to behold this one, however outrageous it may seem: Donald Trump appears to be taking down the government of the United States of America. This is not your usual neo-con agenda of less government; it looks to be a concerted attack on the American state itself. 



Why would the president of the United States do such a thing? In his own terms, what’s in it for Donald Trump? Maybe more to the point, what’s in store for Donald Trump if he does not do this? To answer these questions, please understand that realized strategy need not be driven by an actor’s own intentions; it can be driven by the force of circumstance, even by the intentions of some other person able to exercise power over that actor.

Who might be able to do that? The answer seems evident enough. Were Vladimir Putin president of the United States, could he be doing any better for Russia? “Trade wars are good” said Donald Trump. Sure, for Putin’s Russia. It looks like Donald Trump’s realized strategy is executing Vladimir Putin’s intended strategy.

On the other side of this coin, the Mueller Inquiry has indicated that the Russians were determined to see Donald Trump elected. But why would they want a loose cannon in the White House, such an obvious threat to their security? Because, in Putin’s pocket, Trump has not been a loose cannon at all, but a straight shooter—consistently in the direction of Russian interests. (Has his recent rash of actions in the Ukraine, Syria, and the sending home of Russian diplomates changed that? Coming suddenly and all together, they look suspicious: a smokescreen to obscure his real agenda?)

What might Putin have on Trump? Some video shot in a hotel room? Undisclosed evidence of Russian collusion in the Trump election? More likely, the capacity to call in loans that would bankrupt Trump’s businesses. Regardless of the reason, what matters is Trump’s behavior. What matters more is the threat this poses to the security of all of us.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018. Following on this, I am preparing an article entitled “Donald Trump is not the problem.”

About this business of government, Mr. President

5 April 2017

[Another version of this was posted on hbr.org last week under the title “The U.S. cannot be run like a business.”]

Dear Mr. President

As a neighbor in Canada who has long worked with businesses and governments around the world, I have some important news for you. America is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business―all over government. Please understand this to avoid pouring more oil on the fires of America, and this planet.

[Another version of this was posted on hbr.org last week under the title “The U.S. cannot be run like a business.”]

Dear Mr. President

As a neighbor in Canada who has long worked with businesses and governments around the world, I have some important news for you. America is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business―all over government. Please understand this to avoid pouring more oil on the fires of America, and this planet.

Business in its place is essential, just as is government in its place, which is not all over business. Now, however, thanks to you and your cabinet, business need no longer just lobby government to get its way; it is government. You were elected to challenge the establishment; will the executives who came into your cabinet from ExxonMobile and Goldman Sachs do that? They are the establishment: that other, more powerful business establishment that has now displaced the weaker political establishment.

This is an old problem now being carried to a new extreme. In the early days of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength...” Instead, later in that century the U.S. Supreme Court recognised corporations as “persons” in the law. Not long after that, in the new century, President Teddy Roosevelt was railing about the power of corporate trusts in American society, and in the 1960s President Dwight David Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.” Nevertheless, in 2010 the Supreme Court gave those corporate persons the right to fund political campaigns to their heart’s content. When “free enterprise” in an economy becomes the freedom of enterprises as persons in a society, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, government of the real people, by the real people, for the real people perishes from the earth.

Should government even be run like a business, let alone by businesspeople? No more than that business should be run like a government, by civil servants. As you well know, when an entrepreneur says “Jump”, the response is “How high sir?” You are now finding out what happens when a U.S. president says “Jump”. So far, so bad. Governments are relentlessly subjected to a plethora of pressures that many businesses, especially entrepreneurial ones like your own, cannot easily understand.

Business has a convenient bottom line, called profit, which can easily be measured. What’s the bottom line in government, say for terrorism? (Countries listed? Immigrants deported? Walls built?) What’s the bottom line for climate change? (Do you really believe it is jobs created?)

Running government like a business has been tried again and again, only to fail again and again. You must remember the debacle in New Orleans when Homeland Security was run by a businessman…of sorts. How about when George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Army promised to bring in “sound business practice”? He came from Enron, just before its spectacular collapse.

In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced PPBS (Planning-Programming-Budgeting System) to run government like a business. The obsessive measuring led to the infamous body counts of the Vietnam War. That bottom line was about as low as it can get. Then in the 1980s came the “New Public Management”, a euphemism for old corporate practices: isolate activities, put a manager in charge of each, and hold him or her responsible for the measurable results. That might work for the state lottery, but how about foreign relations or education, let alone, dare I mention it, health care? And now, at your request, your own son-in-law heads yet another effort to run government like a business. Back he comes with that old buzzword of citizens as “customers.” (Al Gore was using this misguided metaphor when he was vice-president.) You know what? I am not a mere customer of my government, thank you, as if I buy services at arm’s length. I am an engaged citizen of my country.

The place of business is to supply us with goods and services; that of government, aside from protecting us from threats, is to help keep our marketplaces competitive and responsible. Do you really believe that recent American governments have been overdoing this job, let alone even doing it?

I have a little book for you, Mr. President, called Rebalancing Society. It contends that a healthy society balances the power of respected governments in the public sector with responsible businesses in the private sector and robust communities in what I call the plural sector (“civil society”). The most democratic nations in the world today function closest to such balance, including ours in Canada and those in Scandinavia, likewise your own when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the community “associations” that helped to maintain democracy in early America. Indeed, during the decades following World War Two, the U.S. was far better balanced, as it experienced striking prosperity and development—economic as well as social―despite high taxes and generous welfare programs. Now, however, the country has lost that balance, and needs the plural sector to offset the fruitless swinging back and forth between left and right—government interventions by the public sector and market forces in the private sector.

Think back to the Berlin Wall, Mr. President. That wall fell on our Western democracies, because we misunderstood what brought it down. The pundits of the West claimed that capitalism had triumphed. Not at all. Balance had triumphed.  While the communist states of Eastern Europe were utterly out of balance, on the side of their public sectors, the successful countries of the West retained a relative balance across the three sectors.

But with this misunderstanding, capitalism has been triumphing since the fall of that wall, and throwing America and many other countries out of balance the other way, in favor of their private sectors. Look around, Mr. President, at income disparities, climate change exacerbated by excessive consumption, and the unregulated forces of globalization running rampant around the globe. That is why we have seen votes like Brexit and your own, by distraught people unsure which way to turn, except against the “establishment”.

When enough people realize what has been going on, if not you, then a subsequent president, will have to restore the balance that made America great in the first place.

Sincerely

Henry Mintzberg
Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. For elaboration of these arguments, please see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. Also my Harvard Business Review article “Managing Government, Governing Management”. 

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Jefferson and Lincoln anticipated Trump. What’s next?

30 December 2016

Donald Trump is not a new phenomenon in the United States, just an extreme form of an ongoing one. For years theatre has been prominent in the country’s public life, although never quite like this. This latest farce may be entertaining, but it could prove to be disastrous. The so-called “leader of the free world” will soon be a loose cannon loaded with nuclear warheads.

The winner of the presidency loses the election (although not, conveniently, in four key states—kind of makes you wonder).   The great tax evader is expected to stop the evasion of taxes. He accused his opponent of giving speeches to the very bankers who are staffing his new administration. A hunt is already underway in the Environmental Protection Agency for whoever has dared to protect the environment. And please welcome ”clean coal” back to an atmosphere near you.

Donald Trump is not a new phenomenon in the United States, just an extreme form of an ongoing one. For years theatre has been prominent in the country’s public life, although never quite like this. This latest farce may be entertaining, but it could prove to be disastrous. The so-called “leader of the free world” will soon be a loose cannon loaded with nuclear warheads.

The winner of the presidency loses the election (although not, conveniently, in four key states—kind of makes you wonder).   The great tax evader is expected to stop the evasion of taxes. He accused his opponent of giving speeches to the very bankers who are staffing his new administration. A hunt is already underway in the Environmental Protection Agency for whoever has dared to protect the environment. And please welcome ”clean coal” back to an atmosphere near you.

This is quite literally business as usual. Just look at the stock market: it’s having a ball.

Business as usual began early in the Republic. It was barely a quarter century old when Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength...” A half century later, Abraham Lincoln “tremble[d] for the safety of my country….  Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow…until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.… God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

Instead, two decades later, the Supreme Court granted corporations the right to personhood. Not your usual personhood, however: corporate persons do not go to jail when they commit a crime (otherwise the ranks of the great enterprises would have been decimated by now). More recently, for anyone who missed its message, the Supreme Court granted these persons the right to fund political campaigns to their heart’s content. Do you think Brazil is corrupt? Its corruption is criminal, and is being prosecuted. The corruption in America is legal, and therefore beyond challenge: the U.S. Supreme Court legalized bribery.

There is noble America and there is nasty America: on one hand, the America of World War Two, the Marshall Plan, and the upholding of basic freedoms; on the other hand, the America of repeated incursions all over Latin America and into Vietnam and Iraq, and at home travesties from McCarthy to Trump.  Yet even rather liberal commentators have been blindsided by noble America. “Somewhere in the back of their minds, a lot of people seem to be realizing that the alternative to a United States–dominated world . . . is a leaderless world” (Thomas Friedman).1 “To regain the identity it enjoyed during the Cold War, the United States ought to become the leader of a community of democracies…. [It] would still need to retain its military might, but this strength would serve to protect a just world order” (George Soros).2 Shall we all sit back and hope that Friedman and Soros will not have to eat their words?

Guess what? Nasty America is on its way back in. Indeed, 2017 is looking to be the year of the bullies: Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, and the rest. Will people around the world who care about this planet and our progeny finally realize what has been going on and do something about it?

What has been going on is imbalance. Private sector forces now dominate the “free world” much as public sector forces dominated the communist world of Eastern Europe. In the name of globalization, “free enterprises” ride roughshod over free people and sovereign nations. Something is rotten in the state of democracy.

No wonder so many people are angry about globalization. The trouble is that they don’t know where to turn, so they vent their rage indiscriminately—in favor of the likes of Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen. The world is on fire and the inclination is to pour oil on it (all too literally in the case of climate change). Many of the more  established people don’t turn to reckless leadership; they are just waiting for corporate social responsibility to fix it—as if CSR will compensate for all the CSIrresponsibility we now see around us. These people should be taking tranquillizers (on patent). 

How to escape what Albert Einstein defined as insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? There may, however, be a silver lining in the Trump election: it issues a wake-up call, that we shall have to do things differently, sooner or later. Given his latest Twitter pathology about the American nuclear arsenal, sooner looks better.

Doing things different is possible. Imagine, for example, a council, a coalition, and communities.3 The Security Council of the United Nations is an insecurity council, arguably a war council. All five permanent members have large arsenals of nuclear weapons and histories of bullying—whether in the form of colonialism or belligerent incursions. They are also the five largest exporters of armaments in the world. Aleppo is their most recent accomplishment. Imagine instead  a Peace Council, made up of democratic nations with no nuclear weapons and no recent history of belligerence. Vested with legitimacy by concerned people all over the world, such a council could shift the whole thrust of international relations.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) each have their own cause: human rights for Amnesty International, the environment for Greenpeace, the medical consequences of calamities for Doctors Without Borders. Yet these problems share common cause, namely the imbalance that distorts the world today. Imagine if a coalition of respected NGOs issued a compelling vision forward—a manifesto for action to restore balance—around which these concerned people everywhere, left and right, could coalesce.

One message of the Trump, Sanders, Brexit, and other votes is that never before have so many regular people been prepared to act on the resentment they feel. With such a vision to replace the deceptive rhetoric of populist politicians, there could emerge a groundswell of people in communities, connected around the world, intent on restoring decency and democracy. They could pressure their governments to legislate and regulate for better balance, promote an international Peace Council, and support businesses that act responsibly while targeting those (and governments) that do not. We should be using the marketplace, with boycotts, to let the sellers beware.

Is any of this utopian? All of it is. But that makes none of it impossible, not when the alternative is to hope for the best. Everything in Donald Trump’s behavior indicates that what we see is what we are going to get.

It must have seemed impossible in 1776 that a popular groundswell could create a new form of democracy that would change the world. Thomas Paine, pamphleteer for that effort, did write that: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And so they did. And so we can.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Some of these ideas are elaborated in my 2015 book Rebalancing Society

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1 Friedman, T. 2009, February 25. Paging Uncle Sam. New York Times.www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/opinion/25friedman.htmal?

2 Soros, G. 2004. The bubble of American supremacy: The costs of Bush’s war in Iraq. New York: Perseus Books, pp. 167-168.

3 These were discussed at greater length in an earlier TWOG entitled “We couldn’t vote, but we can act.