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The dangers of an unpredictable leader

IMD Professor Jennifer Jordan on what type of Leader Donald Trump would be
2 min.
September 2016

During a recent interview, American Presidential candidate Donald Trump stated in response to a question about his foreign policy agenda, “I’d rather not play my cards… I want to be unpredictable”. This sentiment is nothing new for Trump. When talking to Fox News last October about America’s debt limit he responded to Chris Wallace with, “I don’t want to say. I want to be unpredictable. Because we need unpredictability.” So even with all of Trump’s inconsistencies, it seems like he is consistent with one thing – his desire to be unpredictable.

Humans have a fundamental need for predictability. Psychologists have long known that being unable to predict what happens in one’s environment is extremely stressful and requires complex coping skills to deal with. In a seminal study by Lawrence Pervin, people who were given electric shocks that were preceded by a signal indicating that they were about to be shocked found the shocks less painful and less stressful than did those who received the same shocks without warning or with a warning that did not accurately predict when the shock would occur. And recent work by Stanford’s Lindred Greer teaches us that unpredictable leaders cause disorder and poor performance within their own teams through the power struggles that they incite.

So, what implications does this have for the person who might become the next leader of the free world? Regardless of your political bent, Trump’s unwillingness to state and stick with a policy and attitude does not bode well for the well-being of the American people. We shouldn’t tout his unpredictability as new or refreshing but rather a psychological liability for the constituents he aims to lead.

Jennifer Jordan is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. She teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance and Building on Talent programs.


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