Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Sharonville Convention Center, Wednesday, July 6, 2016, in Cincinnati.  Photograph by John Minchillo—AP

Is Trump a Bumbling Incompetent or a Canny Disrupter?

Jul 11, 2016

This essay originally appeared in Power Sheet, Fortune's daily newsletter on leadership.

Donald Trump will likely announce his VP pick this week—the Republican convention starts July 18—and I have nothing to add to the one zillion words that have been written about it. Whoever his choice, it will further stoke a larger argument that’s worth pondering for any leader: As a candidate, is Trump a bumbling incompetent or a canny disrupter?

The latest addition to the “incompetent” argument is this Washington Post piece describing in persuasive detail how Trump squandered the golden gift of FBI Director James Comey’s takedown of Hillary Clinton’s judgment and behavior. In a disciplined campaign, Trump would have talked about nothing else for a week. In reality, he went off-script within 24 hours, ranting about his retracted Star of David tweet and praising Saddam Hussein. Those remarks dominated the media coverage of Trump in the days after Comey’s statement. What should have been a great run for him turned into a terrible one, and Trump has never gained the momentum he should have built from the FBI news.

Oh, and remember the State Department Inspector General’s scathing report on Clinton’s email practices, released in May? Maybe not, because within 48 hours Trump made his speech denouncing Judge Gonzalo Curiel for his Mexican ancestry, which instantly dominated the political news. Another gift thrown away.

The only problem with the “incompetent” argument is that if it’s valid, Trump should be hopelessly behind in the race. Instead, he’s just slightly behind and clearly still competitive; the latest Real Clear Politics poll average shows him trailing Clinton by 4.5 points. Thus the “disrupter” argument. It holds that Trump is a viable candidate, having won the Republican nomination by a massive popular-vote margin over his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, because he has reconceived running for office.

Specifically, he’s following three precepts that violate conventional wisdom but now work powerfully: 1) Attitude is more important than policy positions. 2) Anger counts for more than logic. 3) Real-people language—genuine real-people language, not the fake variety that some politicians affect—is more valuable than sounding statesmanlike. Conventional candidates can’t even think in those terms. That, and his success so far, are the signs of a successful disrupter.

My take: Both arguments are valid, and the “incompetent” view will prevail. Trump’s disruptive strategy will attract a lot of votes, but as the most disliked nominee in modern history, he won’t attract enough to win. Nonetheless, we can be certain that politicians of both parties are studying the Trump phenomenon and how they can apply its lessons in their own careers.

Love him or hate him, the disrupter side of his performance has revealed important realities about the U.S. public. All leaders, not just politicians, will have to pay attention.

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