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Give Trump a break for 'flip-flopping' on Afghanistan

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Geez. Can’t a guy change his mind every now and then?

President Trump is drawing fire from many of his own supporters for “flip-flopping” on Afghanistan. As a candidate, Trump favored a simplistic, easy-sounding complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. As president, Trump has to contemplate the actual consequences of such a move, which is why he has now taken his generals’ advice and agreed to redouble the nation’s counterterrorism efforts there. Instead of bringing troops home, Trump will most likely send more Americans to a region where we’ve been at war for 16 years.

Afghanistan is a complex problem with no easy solutions. But changing one’s mind on a complicated matter isn’t necessarily flip-flopping. In some cases, it’s even a sign of enlightened leadership. “Good leaders engage in actively open-minded thinking,” says University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Jonathan Baron. “It can make you more objective and less biased by prior beliefs. It’s kind of encouraging that Trump changed his mind about Afghanistan. Good for him.”

The difference between flip-flopping and changing your mind as facts or circumstances change has a lot to do with expediency. Flip-floppers alter their views to pander to a given audience, without much real conviction. Leaders who change their minds for substantive reasons often do so with strong conviction, coupled with awareness of their own limitations and the realization that they could turn out to be wrong.

The best leaders encourage free thinking

Leadership experts, in fact, often cite the ability to challenge one’s own beliefs and consider other points of view as a crucial attribute of the best leaders. “This balancing act between confidence and doubt is a hallmark of great bosses,” writes Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of “Good Boss, Bad Boss” and several other books on workplace culture. “The confidence inspires people to follow them and believe in them, but the doubt helps ensure they get things right.”

Sutton cites Andy Grove, the famed co-founder of Intel, as a visionary who understood his most compelling ideas could be wrong. “None of us have a real understanding of where we are heading,” Grove, who died last year, once said. “I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.”

The whole ethos of Silicon Valley, in fact, allows for mistakes, provided they are acknowledged and corrected. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg famously encouraged his employees to “move fast and break things,” in order to innovate quickly and fix the bugs along the way. With Facebook no longer a startup but an icon of the digital establishment, Zuckerberg has since modified that motto to “move fast with stable infra,” indicating more effort to get it right the first time.

Many notable leaders encourage their underlings to disagree with them, especially on important matters of business decisions and strategy. Ray Dalio, founder of the giant hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, famously cultivates disagreement at his firm, with the winning argument being the one supported by the best logic and research rather than the one put forward by the boss. Alan Mulalley, former CEO of Ford, said one of his top 3 challenges when taking over the company in 2006 was teaching his executive staff, used to rigid, top-down leadership, how to argue with the boss and present differing views. Even Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, notoriously prickly, was known for changing his mind frequently. “I saw it daily,” Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, said shortly after Jobs died in 2011. “This is a gift, because things do change, and it takes courage to change. It takes courage to say, ‘I was wrong.’”

Is President Trump evolving?

Trump is not yet widely regarded as a bold, courageous leader. He seems to prize loyalty more than competence in some of his top aides. His views on important policy priorities such as health care have shifted frequently, with no clear guiding principle. He undermines his own credibility with outlandish claims, such as his recent invocation of a long-debunked story about how Gen. John J. Pershing treated Muslim prisoners-of-war more than a century ago.

“The irony is that Trump displayed every single feature in the campaign of being not actively open minded,” says Baron. “He maintained beliefs long after they were clearly discredited. He wasn’t even looking for counter-evidence.” On Afghanistan, Trump has apparently found some, which could be a sign of the U.S. president finally acting presidential.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman