248-409-1900 dburke@mi-worklaw.com

By:  Bill Pilchak – 7/28/16

The current political landscape is causing people to have all sorts of thoughts about Presidential candidates that might not have entered our heads in the past. The politics of the past few days have touched on a phenomenon we often observe in our practice: The Smartest Man In The World Syndrome.  You may observe my own leanings in the commentary on politics below, but the ultimate point is non-partisan and relevant to business leaders.

The political/business point today is that for the umpteenth time in the campaign, Donald Trump has blurted something out which might have made an important and helpful point if articulated with a little attention to content and context. Any serious observer of politics notes with bemusement and derision how the Wiki-Leaks disclosure of Anti-Bernie e-mails has been spun and legitimate concerns obscured in recent days:

  • Wiki-Leaks releases e-mails showing the DNC sabotaging the Sanders campaign. (Legitimate, take-away-point: the system was rigged in favor of Hillary, just as Sanders had said);
  • DNC and FBI (i.e. the Obama administration) say the hackers were Russians. (Shifting attention from the DNC’s misconduct. Instead of the media’s point becoming: “If the Russians hacked the DNC, don’t we have to assume they hacked Hillary’s private server?” the media stressed: “The Russians are interfering in our election” – by disclosing true facts.)

One of more insightful talking heads addressed the question as to why the Russians did what they did.  Does Putin really prefer that Trump have his finger on the nuclear button rather than Clinton, who presided as Secretary of State while the U.S. stepped down from its world leadership role and who promises to continue the Obama legacy of drawing but not enforcing red lines in the sand, troop withdrawals and promising more flexibility on missile disarmament once he did not face another election?  The talking head expressed concern that the Russians posted the DNC e-mails as a warning to Clinton that they had hacked her server too, had the 30,000 e-mails she deleted and could disclose them (and bring her down?) any time they chose.  In other words, the concern was that the Russians could blackmail her.

Trump seems incapable of expressing a nuanced thought like that and apparently does not listen to advisors. He came close to the legitimate concern, but blundered into his opponents’ hands by inviting the Russians to disclose Hillary’s deleted e-mails.  Earlier this week, he defended Roger Ailes and sought to discredit his accusers, when even the most junior HR generalist knows that because Fox News and Ailes parted ways, Fox must have found corroboration of the harassment allegations.

Like most business leaders at the top of the organization, Trump suffers from being surrounded by yes-men who always agree with the boss’ observations. When no one tells the boss he is wrong, he believes his perspective is the truth.  (Yes, “he;” the syndrome seems to be gender-specific.) This happens to be a constant problem in our practice. In virtually every case, the owner, president or chairman is the witness we worry about most before deposition and trial.  Since he thinks he is always right, the top dog sees no value (and claims he does not have the time) to fact-check his perspective against documents, data, others’ opinions, etc., or participate in preparation sessions that might disturb his view.  Accordingly, our defense often has to steer-around Trump-like statements that are unsupported by the established facts and inconsistent with our theory of the case.  At the very least, the unchecked statements by the biggest boss provide a “question of fact” that requires a trial and precludes dismissal.  In the worst cases, the improvident statements blow up the Company’s case.

Fortunately, there are two effective treatments for The Smartest Man In The World Syndrome.  First, instead of gnashing your teeth when you next hear a Trumpism, drill down and consider why he lacks the broader perspective others might have.  Who is at his elbow, and why are they not telling him the emperor has no clothes?  Resolve to tamp down our own ego and listen to others who disagree.  Trump has brilliant kids who delivered commanding speeches at the RNC, but if he wants to overcome The Smartest Man In The World Syndrome, he should hire my daughter, Noelle.   Noelle isn’t afraid to tell “the big guy” that his perspective has more holes than Michigan roads, although I must admit, I am getting smarter as she gets older.

The second antidote is a bit easier: Read the Dilbert comic in the funny pages every day. Scott Adams has a gift for illustrating how clueless executives can be.  Study the messages there, and you soon won’t be the “pointy-headed” boss that people laugh at in the office – or on nationwide TV.