Can I Blame Ronald Reagan for the Current State of Politics? A Leadership Lesson on Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

ronald_reagan_quoteLike most people, I was surprised by last week’s election results. Regardless of your ideology, every poll indicated Clinton would win, including those used by the Republican party. However, after reflecting (and a little Monday morning quarterbacking), I’ve become less and less surprised and more and more convinced that Trump’s win is the culmination of a trend that began under the direction of GOP icon Ronald Reagan.

In his first inaugural address, Republicans rejoiced when Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Almost 40 years later, Trump was able to tap into a segment of the population who feel disenfranchised and ignored; and one of the reasons they feel so disenfranchised and ignored is because every GOP candidate, pundit and political operative since Reagan have repeatedly told them that “government is the problem.”

We call this a self-fulfilling prophecy where behavior influenced by expectations cause those expectations to come true. Basically, the more you hear it, the more you believe it, and more it comes to fruition. It typically starts small—you are told the government is broken (by none other than its leader), so when you see the long line at the DMV the next week, your first thought is validating. This then leads to larger and more significant examples until you can no longer be convinced that the government does anything right.

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.—William Isaac Thomas

Often, the negative effects of self-fulfilling prophecies are the product of an ambitious leader. When an individual is vying for power and wants to distinguish themself from the past, they might say something like, “the company is not the solution to our problem; the company is the problem.” The hitch is in the shortsightedness of the rhetoric.

Once the leader endorses the most awful perceptions of their organization by saying it is corrupt, heartless, incompetent, etc, they cannot then expect that once they are in charge, everyone will have faith in their leadership. That leader is now part of the system and is, therefore, victim to the new prescient of skepticism that they helped establish.

self-fulfilling-prophecyJust look at the long-standing GOP leaders. By making Reagan’s line the central tenet of the Republican’s political platform, it morphed beyond the GOP’s control—once someone believes that government is the problem, career politicians have no credibility since they are part of the government and, thus, part of the problem. As a result, those who once led the GOP and proudly echoed Reagan’s mantra find themselves on the outskirts of the party because they successfully perpetuated the self-fulfilling prophecy that they themselves should not be trusted.

When you “force-feed your audience a diet of outrage,” as written by Jake Cusack, you undermine trust—trust in your leadership, trust in the culture, trust in the organization’s ability to make the needed improvements. Authority is destabilized, good deeds are disregarded, and legitimacy is in question. But be warned, today they may cheer for you and your anti-establishment views; tomorrow they will rebel against you with the same fury that once fueled your ascent.

As a leader, consider the ramifications of feeding into the discontented beliefs of your less engaged staff. Instead of becoming the mouthpiece of disgruntlement, promote a culture of continuous improvement where the concerns of the disenfranchised are taken seriously and immediately addressed. Don’t minimize their grievances, but don’t exacerbate them either.

Start a self-fulfilling prophecy of optimism and positivity. Be the Reagan who worked towards improving the government through bipartisan cooperation, not the Reagan who used cynicism to rally his base. Your organization is relying on you for a hopeful vision of the future grounded in a realistic view of its current state. It is up to you to set this path.

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