Donald Trump

Change Management: Is It All In the Delivery?

Regardless of political affiliation, it is incumbent upon anyone involved in change management, stakeholder management or leadership to sit up and pay attention to the techniques currently being used by Mr. Trump and Mr. Ford. This is only common sense. Even if you dislike their style, to paraphrase the words of Don Vito Corleone it is better to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Both men maintain positions of almost absolute power. For them, this makes the initiation of change much more manageable. Mr. Ford has learned from Mr. Trump that there is no longer any need to run an idea through a gauntlet of advisors. It is far more expedient to announce it directly to the public through social media or carefully selected journalists.

If one were to compare this against Robert Cialdini’s six faces of influence, this is indisputably the face of authority in action.

However, as Mr. Trump has discovered, and as perhaps Mr. Ford will soon too, not every change deployed by a single tweet or hasty press conference will live to see its day. Numerous lower court rulings that have overturned many of Mr. Trump‘s initiatives show that at least to this moment in history, absolute power in either country is not yet absolute.

But it is still worth observing in both cases the degree to which they understand their stakeholders. Each leader recognizes a solid core base of devoted followers that approaches cult status. The influence and power that each has over their respective bases are not one based on fact, statistics, or explanation. It is one solely based on the power of personality.

Is this something that other people involved in change management should emulate? Is the power of charisma stronger than that of careful planning and communication in the stakeholder management process?

By comparison, how much of this type of charismatic influence did Steve Jobs have in the successful marketing of Apple products? Was it the cult of Apple that spurred sales, or was it a carefully executed plan? Compare this to BlackBerry, once the darling of the corporate crowd. Was a belief in charisma and brand instrumental in the company’s failure to pull the market in its direction? Blackberry did not really have a “face” the same way Apple did, or Virgin still does.

How much of your change management strategy will rely on personal relationships and charisma? Is it even fair to expect successful deployment to be based on the personality of the change leader? In the world of stand-up comedy, a joke or even an entire act can succeed or fail depending on the style of the person delivering it. There’s something to be observed there. Credibility on the part of the messenger or change agent and acceptance on the part of those accepting change rely a great deal on subjective emotional interpretation.

Not every corporate leader charged with initiating a change either within their department or outside in the world of the public is blessed with a fiery personality or unyielding self-confidence. However, it is essential to point out just how crucial it is for people upon whom change is being foisted, to believe in the person initiating that change. Intelligent project management is vital to the successful deployment of change initiatives, but without a personal connection, the plan will fall upon deaf ears.

Humans need to feel comfortable, they need to feel looked after, and they need to feel optimistic. This has been the backbone of organized religion for millennia and is undoubtedly the backbone of populist politics. The question becomes whether an emotionally charged base of disciples is sufficient to carry the day for any of us involved in organizational change. Mr. Trump and Mr. Ford face challenges in the courts, and corporate change managers face the same type of scrutiny and diligence from boards of directors, shareholders, other levels of management and the rank-and-file.

In the end charisma without substance, speeches without research, and personality without plans may be doomed to stumble or fail. But this statement can also be read in reverse: substance without charisma, research without speeches, and plans without personality may also be doomed to the same level of failure.

But those of us busy focusing on a successful change management initiative must take note of the fact that people love to connect with strong leaders who actively listen to their concerns. It is always best when such attention is genuine, and that it results in tangible, people-focused actions, but the point remains; the majority of stakeholders continues to be ruled primarily by emotion, especially fear. Facts are important, of course, but your investment in the emotional side of change should be sufficient to balance out the logic of your project plan.

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Donald Trump Speaks Like an Australian Frilled Lizard

Unquestionably, this has been the year of Donald Trump. Love him, hate him, fear him, it is impossible to ignore him. As a professional speaker, I find him fascinating. I watch his mannerisms, his hand gestures, his eyes, the hair of course. I listen to his words. All of them point to a style of defiance and bravado. He, the proponent of the great Mexican wall, has built one around himself – a shield against any form of rebuttal or inquiry. A shield that also magnifies the intensity of his delivery, even when true substance is lacking.

Australian Frilled Lizard - Image from Google Images. Click for link.

Australian Frilled Lizard – Image from Google Images. Click for link.

You see many examples of this in the animal kingdom. Frilled lizards, like the one pictured, extend the ruff around their neck to appear larger and scarier than they actually are. Puffer fish do this, and even cats do it when they arch their backs. This act of physical bluster seeks to fend off predators and competitors without having to resort to actual battle.

Please do not take this blog as a hit piece against Mr. Trump. I am trying to understand his appeal through his technique, which has obviously proven to be a success. He is one of many notable political speakers, and I wish to compare him to those from either side of the political landscape.

Those Hands

When Mr. Trump speaks, his hands speak too. Everyone who speaks publicly learns sooner or later the power of hand gestures while talking. You need them. Most people in the know use their hands carefully, as punctuation – subtle embellishments of the message, a demonstration of openness, sincerity, or conviction. Nervous or inexperienced speakers tend to use their hands too much, a problem that becomes even worse on camera. Over-gesticulation becomes a distraction to the audience, but correct hand usage guides the listener through the story: body language becomes a chaperone to the words.

My feeling is, Mr. Trump’s hand gestures convey an instruction to his audience: “Don’t interrupt me. My idea is all that counts.” He speaks with one or both hands raised to shoulder height, palms outward, often with his index fingers raised. To me, the palms outward represent the universal “stop” signal. They put up the wall that says, “you must not interrupt me.” The raised index finger highlights the topic being spoken about. They say, “This idea is the best. This is the one thing you should be paying attention to.”

Mr. Trump seldom lets those hands rest. They are in action throughout his entire verbal delivery, ready to fend off any challenges from hecklers, or worse, journalists.

Those Words

Mr. Trump’s speaking style is another wall, another defensive inflation of his physical self. He allows no spaces, no pauses, no chance for anyone else to step in. There are three essential components of his speech, in my opinion.  These are refrains, flares, and hooks.

Refrains: Mr. Trump never says something once. He says it many times. Every phrase is stated three or more times, especially while he is framing his thoughts, or as a statement comes to a close. Here he is defending his use of the “Star of David” graphic on a recent anti-HRC web page. I have highlighted the refrains.

Trump Star 1

Flares are phrases that shoot out the side of a conversation as unnecessary fillers, distractions. They shift the mind’s focus away from the key message, reducing the chance for people to truly focus and then question its veracity. This is very much like the technique of distraction that magicians use to keep audiences from scrutinizing a trick too closely. Here’s the same piece with the flares highlighted:

Trump Star 2

This style of distraction with flares and repetition of the main elements is very efficient, and I do not believe it to be anything but intentional. Not only do these two techniques act as a wall, but they also help drive a message home. Anyone who sells for a living knows this: if you say something over and over again, regardless of how true or false it is, most people will start to believe it.

Hooks: Then there are the hooks. The most brilliant of all. Generally two words long. Shocking and memorable. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco. Lyin’ Ted. Failing New York Times. These are powerful because they are easy to remember. Compare this to President Obama’s signature phrase, “Let me be clear,” which, to a vast majority of listeners, sounds like “I want your attention for a protracted period because I’m about to say something that’s good for you.” Few people have the patience for that.

Other Speakers

Mr. Trump’s wall of words reflects his brash, in-your-face style, presumably a job requirement in the cutthroat world of property development. How does it compare to other well-known political speakers?

  • Ronald Reagan was known as the “Great Communicator.” He employed a folksy, smiling style, even at his most serious. As a professional actor, he knew the value of cadence, the power of a well-timed pause, as well as the memorable hook. Remember, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A positively world-changing sentence.
  • Bill Clinton has always been a master storyteller. He, too, conveys a down-home charm that beautifully reflects his Arkansas roots. His speech supporting Hillary at the 2016 Democratic convention sounded like he was speaking to a customer over the counter at a rural general store.
  • The Obamas are both skilled at speaking. President Obama delivers his words like smooth jazz – calm, sophisticated, authoritative, with plenty of pauses and space for the audience to revel in a piece of art. The first lady exudes passion, optimism, and commitment to her ideals. Her eyes reveal a willingness to share, a positive energy.
  • Ted Cruz uses the soaring intonations of the pulpit, reflecting his father’s preaching style, evoking emotion and credibility by verging on song and powerful repetition. Credit for this style is due of course to the Gospel preachers of the South, mostly African-American, and most expertly employed by Martin Luther King, Junior.

Every public figure has to choose a style of voice. Some, unfortunately, do not. I do not find anything memorable about Hillary Clinton, and that may be her Achilles heel. Nor is Marco Rubio terribly impressive. And Jeb Bush, as nice a guy as he may be, could never muster the verbal energy to justify that exclamation point.

The start of a whole new approach to political messaging. Ford and Trum. Photo from NY Daily News.

The start of a whole new approach to political messaging. Ford and Trump. Photo from NY Daily News.

This is not an age where cerebral chat is valued. It is an age of sound bites and public fascination with the next new thing, the more shocking, the better. In Canada, Rob Ford was a cultural icon. Had he survived his battle with cancer, he would still be on the world stage, not because of the depth of his political intellect, but despite it. As one journalist one said to me, “Ford only has to blow his nose, and it will be on the front pages.

Mr. Trump is a speaker for our times. He goes on the offensive, blocking scrutiny and bulldozing over issues that would have sunk other politicians long ago. His unapologetic ignoring of those unreleased tax returns is a prime example. Anger is the current tone of the nation. You see it in the relentless trolling and shaming of people online. You see it in the normalization of horrific attacks on innocent people, whether initiated by terrorists, citizens or the police.

Collectively we have lost the capacity to question ourselves, and have consciously dispensed with any obligation to take blame. It is easier and quicker to apply that blame elsewhere. Thus, the frilled lizard that is Mr. Trump. Attack with watever you have, even if you do not have much. It will scare your opponents away, which, as we are all observing can be an extremely effective survival tactic. Extremely effective.  It’s so effective I can’t – I have people – so many people who say it’s the greatest… listen – it works, OK?

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When did the Debate become “Dancing with the Stars”?

February 7, 2016

Like many other voters, I watch political debates to learn what each candidate has in mind regarding improving the various ills of the country. Yet every time they stand on stage to debate, dressed in their identical dark suits, they seem to embrace their moment in the spotlight as an opportunity for self-directed oratory, regardless of the questions asked.

So why won’t politicians answer the moderators’ questions?

Ted Cruz telling a sad story about his half-sister, before obliquely blaming the Mexicans. Photo: CNN

Ted Cruz telling a sad story about his half-sister, before obliquely blaming the Mexicans. Photo: CNN

All candidates — from both the left and the right — are guilty of this. They are asked a question such as “What is your stance on same-sex marriage?” and it turns into a character assassination of their opponent. A question about a specific issue such as deaths from heroin overdoses or caring for veterans comes back as a justification for building a wall to keep the Mexicans out, or for going back to war, or for blaming the current administration. There is no connection, and no attempt at connection, and this smacks of arrogance in the extreme. The candidates simply steer each opportunity to speak towards a prepared stump speech. The problem is we already know what they stand for. We want to know exactly how they will achieve their goals and fulfill their promises.

The mediators themselves seem powerless. They ring their bells, and they attempt to interrupt, but the candidates talk on, abusing the rules of engagement, and blindly charging ahead. Almost always, for the moderators, some instinctive sense of politeness invariably forces them back into meek silence, bullied, once again by a politician’s ego.

Although there are many voters whose decisions are made solely on the strength of a candidate’s personality, there are many more who wish to truly understand what that candidate is going to do to fix a particular problem. We don’t want scripted, flag-waving jingoism. We want  the nuts and bolts of how a proposed solution will work, step-by-step, and how it is better than the competitors’ own plans. Just saying “I have a way, way better idea,” is a bluff at best, and a lie at worst. It says absolutely nothing.

Perhaps the sponsors of the debates are the nervous ones. Perhaps they do not wish to see a conflict between moderators and speakers, but instead a nice smooth show-and-tell. Not so much a debate, but instead a Washington version of Dancing With the Stars, with each competitor twirling to their own tune, but no contact and no depth:  sequins over substance.

I would like to see a debate where the moderators retain complete control. If a candidate does not stop speaking 10 seconds after the bell is rung, his/her microphone is turned off for five minutes. Same thing if a candidate does not directly answer the question asked, but instead pursues their own personal agenda.

Perhaps also, to further the spirit of democracy and responsible (small) government, the frequency by which candidates are allowed to speak — a highly prized commodity when there are more than three individuals on stage — should be based on the clarity and accuracy of their answers. This could be a scored system. The more times the candidate is scolded about drifting off-topic, the lower their score becomes, and the lower they rank on the speaking  hierarchy.

The debates in their current form simply show politicians demonstrating their true colors: blithely ignoring the requests of their public and pursuing their own agendas without fear of confrontation. Candidates often say they seek to win votes by listening to the voters. Maybe they can demonstrate this in action by first listening to the moderators, and then responding as instructed. They are, after all, supposed to be public servants.

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