The complexity of national leaders’ thinking: U.S. Presidents

How well does the thinking of recent U.S. presidents stand up to the complexity of issues faced in their role?

Special thanks to my Australian colleague, Aiden M. A. Thornton, PhD. Cand., for his editorial and research assistance.

This is the second in a series of articles on the complexity of national leaders’ thinking, as measured with CLAS, a newly validated electronic developmental scoring system. This article will make more sense if you begin with the first article in the series.

Just in case you choose not to read or revisit the first article, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • I am an educational researcher and the CEO of a nonprofit that specializes in measuring the complexity level of people’s thinking and supporting the development of their capacity to work with complexity.
  • The complexity level of leaders’ thinking is one of the strongest predictors of leader advancement and success.
  • Many of the issues faced by national leaders require principles thinking (level 12 on the skill scale, illustrated in the figure below).
  • To accurately measure the complexity level of someone’s thinking (on a given topic), we need examples of their best thinking. In this case, that kind of evidence wasn’t available. As an alternative, my colleagues and I have chosen to examine the complexity level of Presidents’ responses to interviews with prominent journalists.

The data

In this article, we examine the thinking of the four most recent Presidents of the United States — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. For each president, we selected 3 interviews, based on the following criteria: They

  1. were conducted by prominent journalists representing respected news media;
  2. included questions that requested explanations of the president’s perspective; and
  3. were either conducted within the president’s first year in office or were the earliest interviews we could locate that met the first two criteria.

As noted in the introductory article of this series, we do not imagine that the responses provided in these interviews necessarily represent competence. It is common knowledge* that presidents and other leaders typically attempt to tailor messages for their audiences, so even when responding to interview questions, they may not show off their own best thinking.

Media also tailor writing for their audiences, so to get a sense of what a typical complexity level target for top media might be, we used CLAS to score 11 articles on topics similar to those discussed by the four presidents in their interviews. We selected these articles at random — literally selecting the first ones that came to hand — from recent issues of the New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Articles from all of these newspapers landed in the middle range of the early systems thinking zone, with an average score of 1124.

Based on this information, and understanding that presidents generally attempt to tailor messages for their audience, we hypothesized that presidents would aim for a similar range.

The results

The results were mixed. Only Presidents Clinton and Bush consistently performed in the anticipated range. President Trump stood out by performing well-below this range. His scores were all identical — and roughly equivalent to the average for 12th graders in a reasonably good high school. President Obama also missed the mark, but in the opposite direction. In his first interviews, he scored at the top of the advanced systems thinking zone. But he didn’t stay there. By the time of September’s interview, he was responding in the early systems thinking zone. He even mentioned simplifying communication in this interview. Commenting on his messaging around health care, he said, “I’ve tried to keep it digestible… it’s very hard for people to get… their whole arms around it.”

The Table below shows the complexity scores received by our four presidents. (All of the interviews can readily be found in the presidential archives.)


In the first article of this series, I discussed the importance of attempting to “hire” leaders whose complexity level scores are a good match for the complexity level of the issues they face in their roles. I then posed two questions:

  1. When asked by prominent journalists to explain their positions on complex issues, what is the average complexity level of national leaders’ responses?
  2. How does the complexity level of national leaders’ responses relate to the complexity of the issues they discuss?”

The answer to question 1 is that the average complexity level of presidents’ responses to interview questions varied dramatically. President Trump’s average complexity level score was 1054 — near the average score received by 12th graders in a good high school. President Bush’s average score was 1107 — near the average score received by entry- to mid-level managers in a large corporation. President Clinton’s average score was 1141, near the average score received by upper level managers in large corporations. Obama’s, average score was 1163 — near the the average score of senior leaders in large corporations. (Obama’s highest scores were closer to the average for CEOs in our database.)

With respect to question 2, the complexity level of presidents’ responses did not rise to the complexity level of many of the issues raised in their interviews. These issues ranged from international relations and the economy to health care and global warming. All of these are thorny problems involving multiple interacting and nested systems—early principles and above. Indeed, many of these problems are so complex that they are beyond the capability of even the most complex thinkers to fully grasp. (See my article on the Complexity Gap for more on this issue.) President Obama came closest to demonstrating a level of thinking complexity that would be adequate for coping with problems of this kind. (For more on this, see the third article in this series, If a U. S. President thought like a teenager…)

Obama also demonstrated some of the other qualities required for working well with complexity, such as skills for perspective seeking and perspective coordination, and familiarity with tools for working with complexity—but that’s another story.

In addition to addressing the two questions posed in the first article of this series, we were able to ask if these U. S. presidents seemed to tailor the complexity level of their interview responses for the audiences of the media outlets represented by journalists conducting the interviews.

First, the responses of presidents Bush and Clinton were in the same zone as a set of articles collected from these media outlets. Of course, we can’t be sure the alignment was intentional. There are other plausible explanations, including the possibility that what we witnessed was their best thinking.

In contrast, however, President Trump’s responses were well below the zone of the selected articles, making it difficult to argue that he was tailoring his responses for their audiences. Individuals whose thinking is complex are likely to find thinking at lower levels of complexity simplistic and unsatisfying. Delivering a message that is likely to lead to judgments of this kind does not seem like a rational tactic — especially for a politician.

It seems more plausible that President Trump was demonstrating his best thinking about the issues raised in his interviews. If so, his best would be far below the complexity level of most issues faced in his role. Indeed, individuals performing in the advanced linear thinking zone would not even be aware of the complexity inherent in many of the issues faced daily by national leaders.

President Obama confronted a different challenge. The complexity of thinking evident in his early interviews was very high. Even though, as with Bush and Clinton, it isn’t possible to say we witnessed Obama’s best thinking, we would argue that what we saw of President Obama’s thinking in his first two interviews was a reasonable fit to the complexity of the challenges in his role. However, it appears that Obama soon learned that in order to communicate effectively with citizens, he needed to make his communications more accessible.

In the results reported here, Democrats scored higher than Republicans. We have no reason to believe that conservative thinking is inherently less complex than liberal thinking. In fact, in the past, we have identified highly complex thinking in both conservative and liberal leaders.

We need leaders who can cope with highly complex issues, and particularly in a democracy, we also need leaders we can understand. President Obama showed himself to be a complex thinker, but he struggled with making his communications accessible. President Trump’s message is accessible, but our results suggest that he may not even be aware of the complexity of many issues faced in his role. Is it inevitable that the tension between complexity and accessibility will sometimes lead us to “hire” national leaders who are easy to understand, but lack the ability to work with complexity? And how can we even know if a leader is equipped with the thinking complexity that’s required if candidates routinely simplify communications for their audience? Given our increasingly volatile and complex world, these are questions that cry out for answers.

We don’t have these answers, and we’ve intentionally resisted going deeper into the implications of these findings. Instead, we’re hoping to stimulate discussion around our questions and the implications that arise from the findings presented here. Please feel free to chime in or contact us to further the conversation. And stay tuned. The Australian Prime Ministers are next!

*The speeches of presidents are generally written to be accessible to a middle school audience. The metrics used to determine reading level are not measures of complexity level, but reading level scores are moderately correlated with complexity level.

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