How can you Influence Leaders with Chaotic Minds?

June 12, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

The GELI courses I teach are full of conversations that really challenge the assumptions behind my thinking. One recent example was a frustrated UN leader asking, ‘how do I try to influence a minister who is both more expert than me in the topic, in this case education, and has a chaotic mind?’ Think Donald Trump, but with added expertise.

What that means is that meetings are almost impossible to manage – the guy just talks at his visitor, goes off on tangents and appears impervious to argument or evidence. I’m sure you recognize the type – these (usually) men regularly end up at the top of the tree, whether in politics or the corporate world (or for that matter academia, naming no names…😉). Trying to have a conversation, let alone influence, them can be hugely frustrating. I once interviewed alpha male Paul Polman, then CEO of Unilever, for the first edition of How Change Happens and failed to get in a question in during a 90 minute monologue.

That poses a big challenge to the kind of rational, thought-through approaches to influencing that we advocate on the course. How can a rational influencer get traction with a chaotic and arrogant mind?

Two heads of a person with the opposite mindset. concept of chaos and order in thoughts. flat vector illustration isolated on blue background

I suggested a few options:

Find the right messenger: is there someone they fear or respect who might shut them up and convey your message? Polman cited a conversation with my former Oxfam boss Barbara Stocking for getting him to take gender issues seriously. I was struck by the way the Coalitions for Change programme in the Philippines hired ex University professors. When I visited them, we arrived at a particular minister’s office, and watched the Big Man almost physically shrink as he recognized his former prof – ‘how can I help you, madame?’. Influencing gold.

Research their personal history: is there some episode in their past that might help you cut through the verbiage? Something they’ve done, or gone through, or the actions of a family member etc? Religious affiliation? Defining moments such as military service, or serious illness?

Create competition through comparisons: if the guy is dripping testosterone, he won’t like to hear that the neighbouring country/rival company is doing better than him. Think about putting together a league table on the relevant issue. That could create a moment’s self doubt in Mr Chaos in which to get your idea across.

Flattery: worth a go, but in my experience, these guys get so much flattery already that they are pretty much impermeable, unless it’s coming from the Pope or Taylor Swift. Maybe putting his name on the initiative you suggest could sway him?

Congratulate him on his brilliant idea: I once got a charity to fund my research by persuading the relevant budget holder that he had thought of the idea in the first place. The result was Hidden Lives, on children in Latin America and the Caribbean – one of the books I most enjoyed researching and writing (shame it never sold).

Offer to write the note of the meeting: a classic way to insert your issues into the record, but a lot of these kinds of conversations are unminuted.

And there I dried up. I asked my wife, who as a psychotherapist is used to dealing with chaotic minds. Her only additional advice was ‘wait for a quiet moment’. I like that – for sci fi fans of a certain vintage, it reminds me of the overthrow of the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. But a therapist can wait as long as it takes, whereas if you play that trick when visiting a Minister, you are likely to be shown the door.

Any other suggestions?

June 12, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Fascinating post – which raises the question of whether we have to assume that all leaders have “chaotic minds”.
    Certainly the pressures they are under make that a reasonable assumption
    Paul Cairney, the Prof of policy studies at Stirling, is the guy I always turn to for advice in this field and this published article of his in 2018 is as good as it gets on the subject

  2. Thanks for posting. Leaders are often constrained and enabled by the people around them. They can only lead if others are willing to follow. And the leader’s behaviour might be to do what they bring (their baggage) but also a property of the system or the context – i.e. the organisation or network they are in might be characterised as chaotic, or the system might reward leaders for being somewhat chaotic. So linking to your first suggestion, working with their ‘followers’ who might be more receptive to your asks might be one way to go. Another is to mirror back to them (or their team) the chaotic dynamic that is being experienced – although this assumes they are willing to receive.

  3. As you know, influencing is mainly body language, timing, tone, intuition and luck. Very little is about what we say.

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