Like many people around the world I was surprised by the election of Donald Trump but I was not shocked at all. In my home country of Greece and across Europe, I’ve seen the rise of populist politicians, appealing to the raw emotions of voters who feel threatened, anxious and economically insecure. We live in confusing times.
Putting aside political positions and ideology, how do some leaders, especially populists, connect with their followers so directly? It’s important to understand. In an era when there is so much noise to cut through and so many distractions and alternatives to choose from, it has never been more important for leaders to stand out and communicate effectively. There is a new game out there and Trump, particularly, can help us understand some of the new rules.
1. Leadership is about purpose not competence
Today, trust in traditional leadership is at an all-time low. (See my article Purpose is the New Leadership.) People view CEOs and politicians with suspicion — not in spite of their professional experience and competence but because of it. Maybe this is because they associate traditional leaders with the devastating financial collapse of 2008 and all the job losses, corruption and tough times that went with it.
In contrast, people are more enthusiastic about leaders who are clear about their purpose. Such leaders stand for something meaningful and they are able to create a deeper connection between their own aims and their followers / employees and customers. On top of that, they are often keen to disrupt business-as-usual and fuel growth. This feels exciting and significant to be around.
Trump has a very simple purpose-driven message — Make America Great Again. Voters didn’t particularly care how he could accomplish that; but they responded to his sense of meaning and direction. In contrast, Hilary Clinton’s extensive professional experience was not viewed as an asset but as evidence that she was a traditional leader and they were quick to associate her with corruption and bad times. Clinton lacked a simple purpose to counter that argument. She could not articulate the “why” of her candidacy very easily.
Traditional corporate leaders are like Hilary Clinton. They are professional leaders not inspirational leaders. They are competent but not visionary. Their words sound artificial not authentic. They give rehearsed not honest and direct answers. Their goals are not very moving or meaningful.
2. Message breaking through the noise
When it came to organizing, and running his campaign, Trump broke all the rules. He didn’t raise a ton of money to make the big advertising purchases needed to saturate TV commercials. Instead, he tweeted and called into news programs to rant. 24% of his budget was spent on Digital media, while Clinton’s was reportedly only 3.5%.
Trump’s tweets and calls looked crazy and amateurish to traditional eyes. How could he communicate presidentially in 140 characters or as a caller to news shows? But Trump understood that he didn’t need white papers and soaring rhetoric to move people. He just needed to speak in their language about the things that mattered to them. So he developed simple slogans and criticized his opponents with nicknames that stuck and caught voters’ attention at different times and in different ways that kept people interested. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton gave very traditional speeches and interviews — always careful, always on message, always sounding inauthentic.
Notice that when Trump won the presidency, he didn’t give a press conference, he filmed a YouTube video.
Corporate CEOs who rely on traditional speeches, marketing ads and memos that pass through legal are unlikely to connect with employees, customers and even shareholders going forward. No one is interested in the same old narrative. They want a human touch with next-door-neighbor kind of messages.
3. Control reality
“News” got a lot of attention after this election. Trump personally seemed to spread stories, statistics and facts that were not exactly true but stirred both supporters and opponents up.
CBS News political director John Dickerson says that Trump has a strong instinct for creating confusion and uncertainty — often through a simple tweet — as a way of putting himself at the center of a moment or an event. This helps him to “control the narrative” and influence what others are saying, thinking and feeling.
This has parallels in business. Some of the great visionaries have tried to control reality as a way of getting others to think, feel and act as they do. Steve Jobs, famously, had his own “reality distortion field” and, like Trump, didn’t care what others insisted was true.
Henry Ford ignored all conventional wisdom when he mass produced and priced his car. Today, Elon Musk is taking on the car companies, the electric power industry and NASA at once by creating a very different perception of reality and acting on that.
There’s an advantage to believing your own reality. If you have the right drive as a leader, it’s possible you can make that reality come true.
4. Use social persuasion — not just social media
I saw an interesting TED Talk recently about the science of persuasion by author Steve Martin. While we think we are influenced by facts and coherent arguments, we are far more influenced by what we believe others around us are doing. For example, the way hotels use arguments about environmentalism to try to convince guests to reuse their towels is less effective than telling guests that most customers in this specific hotel, or even room, reuse their own towels.
In a similar way, Trump appealed to voters by pressing emotional triggers.
Recent reports have also suggested that Trump employed sophisticated Big Data analysis of social media habits to identify persuadable early voters based on “likes.” He then targeted those voters as directly as possible.
CEOs and other leaders who want to influence, motivate and move employees and customers should study up on big data and the science of persuasion. Check out Steve Martin’s very practical tips in his book YES. And read this piece published in Strategy + Business that talks about different biases (similarity or experience bias) resulting in strong positive or negative feelings and how common goals and collaboration can bring people together especially during intense times (crisis or post-elections) .
5. Anti-establishment is the new establishment
Fidel Castro died a few weeks ago. For 60 years, he was the revolutionary leader of Cuba, and rarely took off his military uniform. He seemed like a permanent revolutionary.
Trump is showing similar signs. He didn’t try to win over the establishment, he abused it and blamed it at every turn. And not just any establishment — but all establishments. Republican Party, Democratic Party, Washington elites, military elites, Wall Street, news organizations, you name it.
This atmosphere of always-in-revolution is carefully fostered by many new era leaders today who prefer disruptive innovation over the status quo. Even as CEO of one of the biggest firms in the world, Jeff Bezos still sounds like a rowdy new founder at a demo day. Suspicion of hierarchy is very common.
Connection is King, Make up the Rest
Conventional wisdom and traditions are melting away. In the new reality only a few rules from the past still matter. New approaches are needed.
Whatever a leader tries, the most important thing is to keep the connection with followers, employees, customers, vendors strong. If Donald Trump ever loses that connection, he may pay a steep and swift price for many of the things he does that violate traditional norms and standards. Until then, he may continue to be surprisingly effective.
Any leader can learn from that.