How should companies operate in the age of Trump?
“Sensemaking,” one of the four leadership capabilities, is the ability to make sense of what is happening in the greater marketplace and discern emerging changes and patterns. In the era of President Trump, business leaders and CEOs need to shift their sensemaking skills into high gear. Along with that, they may have to exercise Improvisational Leadership skills in the Trump universe.
CEOs, like the rest of the country, are faced with the challenge of making sense of Trump’s policies and actions, but his favorite method of communication – Twitter – sows chaos not clarity. Typically, when CEOs or leaders want to convey an important message, they talk to key stakeholders, convene a meeting, or give a nuanced speech to build relationships and foster buy-in with targeted audiences. A tweet has no eye contact, nod, smile, or handshake. A tweet’s brevity can foster confusion because it has no context.
But even if they dislike Trump’s tweets, many business leaders are encouraged by the president’s attitude about rolling back regulations; his comments about reducing taxes are music to their ears. However, a reflexive decision to placate or ingratiate oneself to any powerful figure, even the President, may prove to be a big mistake. Trump may be gone in four years, or even sooner, but your customer and client base will be with you for decades.
Trump may, for example, brag about clamping down on the EPA and changing auto emission rules, but we have already made a paradigm shift to clean energy and improved emissions standards. People enjoy driving hybrid cars; many remember what it was like when cities were choking in smog and the Charles River was synonymous with dirty water. The specter of lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, still hovers. So focus on your own stakeholders and pay attention to your real audience.
Improvisational Leadership skills may be required. When Trump yells, CEOs may have to speak softly. When he pushes, they may have to act like an aikido master to adroitly sidestep a punch. When he steps over the line, they may need to stand up. General Electric as well as Exxon Mobil have pushed back against Trump’s executive order aimed at gutting Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Similarly Levi Straus, Starbucks, Ford Motor, Coca Cola, and Nike joined numerous tech companies opposing the travel ban.
Some observers say that Trump is a great improviser because he makes it up as he goes along. This is not accurate. The hallmark of a great improviser is the “Yes, And” mindset, in which rule number one is to make the other parties look good; this builds strong relationships, encourages collaboration, and moves the action forward. Trump is the guy who says, “No,” and then belittles anyone who disagrees with him. He throws chaos into the moment with distractions and promotes warring factions. In improvisational terms, Trump is a classic “blocker,” the guy who shuts down the process. He tosses out bombs. He steals the stage. He hogs the spotlight. He doesn’t listen.
Nothing could be further from the adept skillfulness of Improvisational Leadership and Influence where mutual respect builds cooperation and consensus. Core leadership values commonly include respect, meritocracy, empathy, integrity, openness to learning, and collaboration. Now business leaders must deal with someone who appears to eschew these values.
This new Trump universe could be one of the most profound opportunities for leaders and CEOs. While we talk about Trump’s follies as a problem, they also present an opportunity. Trump is forcing us to examine our core values; we can’t just put lofty ideas into our company’s mission statement and not think about them again. No matter your political affiliations, some of Trump’s behaviors are very unsettling. If a manager were to treat an employee as Trump, for example, treats reporters or the German Chancellor, that would be unacceptable.
Trump puts up a mirror that forces companies to examine their culture: How do we treat our people? What are our values? Lately, employees at major tech companies have been influencing management decisions by vigorously opposing Trump policies. CEOs are being challenged to ask themselves: Are we listening to our employees who are standing up for our organizational values?
Many organizations are finding that our most complex and pressing 21st century challenges require a new kind of leadership, which means shifting from hierarchical to distributed leadership models. Trump returns in an almost cartoonish image of what leadership once looked like. It’s Mad Men on steroids. And it may represent the last gasp of a passing era.
The Trump universe thus serves as a real-world laboratory. He may be forcing all of us to do that deep dive into who we are as leaders. This opportunity may build even stronger companies and organizational cultures in the long run if CEOs and leaders hold fast to the core values that matter most to them in these most extraordinary times.
Daena Giardella is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and MIT Leadership Center as well an Organizational Consultant and Executive Coach.
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