Then there is Donald Trump. The job he is after requires a fairly solid grasp of geopolitics – and yet he apparently did not know about the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Trump’s national campaign spokesman Katrina Pierson – an example of ineptitude so grotesque that The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson opined that it was “journalistic and civic malpractice” to allow her on TV – stated live on CNN that President Obama started the Afghan war.
How uninvolved and generally uninterested does someone have to be not to know these two facts? When George W Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it was front-page news in the local newspaper of the French village of Champagne-sur-Seine where I lived at the time. In March 2014, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine, I saw images of explosions, gun fire and desolate Ukrainian villages on every TV screen in every country that I travelled to. How could Trump and Pierson not have noticed? More importantly, how did they manage to get away with such staggering ignorance for so long? Who advises them? And who votes for them?
Two more blatantly incompetent statements over the past week came, bizarrely, from Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives. Giuliani said that there had been no successful radical Islamist attack on US territory before Obama entered the White House and Gingrich did not know the latest US crime statistics. When caught out on CNN, Gingrich responded that he cared more about what “the American people felt”, rather than the facts.
The other day I came across a speech by environment and rural affairs secretary Andrea Leadsom on UK farming. It contained some impressive recommendations. Notably, Leadsom thought that the farmers with “big fields” should “do the sheep”, whereas those with “hill farms” should “do the butterflies”. Someone on Twitter promptly commented that the “sophistication of the analysis” was “humbling”. I agree.
Unlike Trump and Leadsom, Giuliani and Gingrich are seasoned politicians, so this carelessness, talking on impulse and disregard for facts smack of some cheap post-Trump relativism, when anything you say goes, no matter how uninformed or downright crazy, as long as you deliver it with sufficient aplomb and provoke a strong reaction.
I see this lack of rigour in the business world too. A couple of years ago, I clambered for a ticket to hear the world’s leading light in organisational sciences talk about her new book. I came an hour in advance, looking forward to learning great things. Forty or so minutes into the talk, I was still waiting for that singular piece of wisdom. It never came. The speaker’s most important message was that one should expand one’s network. She wrote a book about this, went to speak on every conceivable TV and radio show, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review. Just like Trump, she spoke with charisma, but if I wanted just the charisma, I would have gone to a Will.i.am concert instead.
Most would agree that, in a leader, vision is more important than technical knowledge. But there are degrees. Not knowing how things work is not about vision. It’s basic incompetence. People like that do not deserve a hearing.