Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump, A Contrast in Styles of Thinking

Political candidates often differ in many ways. But, that’s a dramatic understatement when the candidates happen to be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump! 

Among their myriad differences, the particular one I see is the extreme contrast in the styles of thinking and deciding of Trump and Clinton. 

Most of my professional life has revolved around the study of executives’ decision styles. I focus on decision making simply because almost everything we all do revolves, in one way or another, around decisions, large and small, simple and complex. Consequently, decision-making is a major factor that contributes to success – especially of executives and leaders. 

Despite its centrality, different people often go about the process of making decisions in markedly different ways from one another. Some have a penchant for making decisions quickly, on the spot. Others mull things over often at length before deciding. Some stick tenaciously to a course of action once a decision has been made. Others modify plans frequently after an initial decision has been taken, especially as things evolve. 

A particular peculiarity of styles of decision-making is that the styles of most people differ in how they make decisions in public and private. How a person first appears as a decision maker and in meetings where a lot of others are present often differs – sometimes sharply – from the way they decide when alone or when working with just a few familiar associates. My colleagues and I call one’s public style, “role style,” and we contrast role styles with a person’s more private, “operating style.” (See the sidebar for an overview of the different decision styles.) 

In a political campaign, there usually are a lot of other people around. So, what we see mostly are the candidates’ role styles. Unfortunately, for the voting public, one thing we know for sure is this: a person’s role style tells you absolutely nothing about how a person behaves as a thinker and decision maker when in operating style. The person’s public and private styles might be the same, but our research says that most often those styles are different. 

To get a real reading on how a candidate thinks takes some doing. One has to dig a little. But, without digging what most people see is a candidate’s public persona – the candidate’s role style. 

So, let’s take a look at Donald Trump. Trump’s role style is one of the easiest ever to read. His followers make it very clear what they admire. We hear it all the time: “Trump says exactly he means!” He doesn’t mince words. His statements contain no ambiguity. They are plain and simple. His choice words is simple. Things are, “very, very good,” or “very, very bad!” He doesn’t “hem and haw” or get into a lot of data or information. He doesn’t lay out a lot considerations. He simply states his views. 

This is a style that I call Decisive – it’s a style that comes across as direct, confident, matter of fact and, often, blunt. Complexities are avoided. Things either are, black or 

white, good or bad. Moreover, the focus is on now, not the distant future, and not on vague possibilities or probabilities. The message isn’t subtle and it doesn’t require any mental gymnastics to understand. Once a decision is made, “that’s that!” 

Trump’s public behaviour personifies the Decisive style. But, what about Donald Trump’s operating style? In his case, one doesn’t have to dig very far or very long to see clear indications that his operating style is quite different from his role style. Listening to him speak in public, one might think that he does exactly what he so clearly says. However, his record is different. In fact, a little digging shows that Donald Trump’s actually operating style is anything but Decisive. The man changes his mind – often dramatically. His position on policy issues, and even on Hillary Clinton, has shifted 180 degrees over time. So, has his position on issues such as abortion, or with which political party affiliation he claims. A short Google search will reveal plenty of evidence of this in short order and Trump’s own words. Here’s a good example showing Donald Trump switching positions from one extreme to another:

So, Donald Trump’s actual operating behaviour fits with a style that I call Flexible. In stark contrast to the Decisive style, the Flexible style is all about changing and adapting, often at a moment’s notice, to changing circumstances. Sometimes just a slight change can prompt a sharp turn of mind for a Flexible decision-maker. The only similarity between the Decisive and the Flexible styles is that neither spends a lot of time collecting and analyzing data and information. Decisions are made quickly – often very, very quickly! This isn’t necessarily an unusual style for a politician. But, in Donald Trump’s case, the contrast between his public, role style and his operating style is rather striking and, moreover, when he is in his Flexible mode he appears capable of shifting positions not just a little, but radically from one extreme to another. 


Four Basic Styles of Decision Making

The styles differ (horizontally) in amount information and analysis and (vertically) in degree of focus on one plan and objective versus multiple objectives and propensity to modify plans and decisions.

Hillary Clinton’s style profile is a more difficult to read. Ironically, this very fact often is a clue to a person’s style profile. 

Many people feel that Hillary Clinton is inscrutable. For many, this fact leads to distrust and suspicion. It’s clear that she has an agenda, but many people wonder what it is and many imagine the worst. 

One the surface, in public, Hillary Clinton comes across as a thinker, as someone who has given a lot of thought to the issues she talks about. Things aren’t just right or wrong. There are considerations to be taken into account. There’s a logic to consider. Ultimately, she states a point of view, though. She doesn’t just leave things hanging. But, one has to listen a bit more carefully to her to grasp her position that is required to understand her opponent’s position (at least in the moment). 

In my view, Clinton’s role style falls into the category that we call Hierarchic. The Hierarchic style is an analytic and logical style. A Hierarchic thinker comes across as thoughtful and thorough and, ultimately, as having very firm opinions and points of view. Usually when people with this role style speak, they want to be seen as someone who is knowledgeable and experienced and who has thought things through and come to a very considered opinion. One does not just blurt out one’s position. 

So, Clinton’s public behaviour best fits the Hierarchic style. But, there nonetheless is this matter of her being difficult to read. In my work with executives, I have found that those 

who are difficult to read often truly are highly analytic in their thinking. They spend a lot of time thinking and mulling things over, kind of building a picture of whatever it is they are thinking about in their mind’s eye. Consequently, what may have originally appeared vague eventually becomes clear or even obvious – in the thinker’s mind. What the thinker may not recognize is that nothing about what they’ve been thinking is clear or obvious in the minds of others who haven’t been in the thinker’s mind with her or him when all the thinking is going on. 

Now the conundrum becomes this: how to convey one’s thinking to others. The picture could be very complex and not something that can be described in just a few simple words. So, one may become rather “strategic” in expressing one’s thoughts to others. One lays out just enough of a plan to various parties that can be understood and accepted. Putting forth the whole picture in all its complexity might only confuse and dissuade. So, one must proceed cautiously. For a political candidate, this can be tricky territory to navigate and not one where simple, straight talk will win a lot of supporters. 

The kind of thinking and decision-making I’m describing here falls into a category we call Systemic. It’s a hybrid combination of the two more analytic styles we call Integrative and Hierarchic. I believe that this is Hillary Clinton’s actual operating style. She is analytic and strategic in how she goes about getting things done. She has an agenda, for sure. But, it’s not an agenda that can be described simply and easily. By her own admission, she said that she sometimes expresses different ideas and viewpoints to different parties in the process of getting things done as, she said, also did an admired leader in the past: Abraham Lincoln. But, this is not a style that’s easy to understand and trust unless you know the thinker very well. 

Stepping back, we can conclude, “What you see is what you get,” is not what you get in Donald Trump nor in Hillary Clinton, but for very different reasons. Nonetheless, here is what we can expect if either is elected: 

With Donald Trump, we can expect sudden decisions and reversals of earlier positions based on immediate events and circumstances. Policy will mean little. The moment will rule. 

With Hillary Clinton, we can expect decisions and policies to matter but to become clear only over relatively long periods of time. Public statements are likely to paint only part of the picture. Sudden shifts in direction will take place only due to important and unanticipated immediate circumstances. To really understand what’s going on and what the ultimate objectives (plural, because there will be many), one will have to piece together a slowly evolving picture. 

Neither of these portraits are likely to have widespread, mass appeal. But, a choice will be made. Which one would you vote for?

A Guest Post by

Kenneth R. Brousseau, Ph.D. 

Decision Dynamics LLC

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