How do Presidents make big decisions in a complex, chaotic, ambiguous world?
Not how we might expect, says LBJ School historian Jeremi Suri in a forthcoming book about US Presidents. We tend to see presidents as commanding, clear-sighted demigods–especially dead ones whom history has ranked highly. “But the presidents we are writing about are not the presidents that existed,” argues Suri. President are compromisers, bargainers, artists and storytellers. In their first year, they’re typically completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the job they have won and the constant, shifting demands it places on them.
In his book Suri looks at nine presidents from Washington through Jackson to Obama. Only Lyndon B. Johnson had a sense of what he was stepping into. “Reagan?” says Suri, “Reagan’s first two years were a disaster.” Presidents fail more often than they succeed. Their agendas shift and twist over time. And “most of the policies they pursue are not ‘decided.'” It is much, much messier than that.
As I listened to Suri’s presentation, I couldn’t help but think of University of Virginia professor Saras Sarasvathy. No one piece of writing has helped me understand entrepreneurs like her paper “What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?” and the framework that came from it, effectual logic. Sarasvathy might as well have begun her research with:
Presidents entrepreneurs make big decisions in a complex, chaotic, ambiguous world?
Sarasvathy argues that effective entrepreneurs approach things a little differently than other people: They are risk averse, constant learners, and seldom goal-directed. As with Presidents, we tend to view entrepreneurs as bold, risk-taking super-people, somehow distinct from the rest of us. Instead, the effectual framework argues that effective entrepreneurs do the following:
- Take tiny steps forward that teach them a lot but don’t cost much
- View problems as evidence of potential options they hadn’t previously considered
- Move toward multiple goals at once, starting with the resources they have available
- Focus on building capacities to control future surprises, rather than trying to predict them
- Allow their ultimate direction to be shaped by the group of people they can recruit to come work with them
In short? They wing it; then they execute on the vision that emerges through this messy, effectual process.
So how do presidents eventually get a grip on their job? By “locating themselves in an emergent reality,” argues Suri, and seeking out the space between pragmatism and moral rectitude: the in between. Then they choose which battles to fight. Some, like Franklin Roosevelt, are able to subordinate everything to a single vision: Creating jobs in the 1930s and then killing fascists in the 1940s.
That sounds pretty effectual to me. What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I read next?