Archive for May, 2017

We are all accustomed to the term “copycat.”  Each time there is a terrorist attack we share a concern that others will be motivated to follow. We accept the psychological reality that when someone commits violence others might be emboldened to act out their own grievances.

So when leaders establish a consistently aggressive tone and refer to people they don’t like as “the enemy” might they also be inciting others to talk and even act in the same way?  Make no mistake, my long experience working with communication issues confirms that they are doing just that. Leadership words and deeds clearly establish the climate and often the acceptable ground-rules for community discourse and problem-solving.

Here are some examples: President Erdogan of Turkey recently was invited to the White House. As he returned to his embassy he found his bodyguards beating up peaceful protesters. Erdogan just stood there watching. Some call him an autocrat, others a dictator, and he was happily welcomed into the White House. What tone does this establish? What values? What behavior cues might some like-minded citizens take from this?

The military dictator of Egypt was also welcomed to the White House. And what about the cheerful Oval Office meeting with Russian adversaries? And Mr. Trump’s congratulatory phone call to the dictator of the Philippines? This guy openly condones murder as his tool for ending drug addiction. Is this not paving the way for many to behave very badly?

And what’s more, as the governor of Texas was announcing a reduction in the state’s gun licensing fee he displayed a bullet pelted target and handgun to the crowd, and then quipped that he would hold on to them in case he saw a reporter! Who can argue this was not copycat motivated?

Heightened aggression in the U.S. is now ranging from the consistently nasty “mean-spirited” language of ultra-conservative politics to actual outbursts of physical violence. Hate speech, violence, and random attacks on police are appearing everywhere. And fearful of what is happening, a growing number of angry protesters also are appearing in conservative town hall meetings and on the streets. Meanness “in the air” encourages meanness everywhere.

Bottom line: Mr Trump’s constant outrageous tweets, attacks on the media, anger toward illegal immigrants, heavy-handed deportations, bully posturing, and admiration of autocrats and dictators, all have combined to establish a constant tone of meanness. Just look around. Many of us already are waking up every morning afraid of what might happen next.


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The John V. Roach Honors College at TCU hosted the 2nd Honors International Faculty Institute. Honors faculty attended from all over the U.S, with representatives from the European Honors Council in The Netherlands. I gave a talk on the globalization of higher education, and conversations that followed centered on the exciting possibilities of developing the leadership potential of the most gifted and talented of the world’s students.

The timing was perfect for me. In previous blog posts I had already referred to the potential of international higher education to develop leaders with cross-cultural experiences and global savvy.  I had also imagined the possibilities of aiming higher education’s research and consulting expertise toward helping to solve many of world’s problems. So continuing to explore the concept of “talent development” as a part of honors education is indeed exciting.

The “Brexit” vote in the U.K. to leave the E.U. and the election of Donald Trump as President in the U.S. revealed a significant number of people in both countries who blame globalization for their economic distress. And while their distress is real and needs to be addressed, global economic forces are already irreversible. Technology has made the world smaller. Commerce is already global. And much of higher education is already international.

This reality is why this institute was so meaningful. It made it completely clear that existing honors programs and talent development initiatives around the world all have their work cut out for them. Finding the best talent on the planet and developing it is our ultimate challenge.



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Consistent behavior patterns either establish credibility or eliminate it entirely. Without credibility there is no reliability or trust.

Not too long ago I found myself explaining to a colleague how “credibility” functioned in foreign policy, and why it is so important. When expectations are for advancing individual freedom, democracy and justice, but the behavior is collaboration with dictators and autocrats, credibility suffers… to say the least.

Expectations in the Middle East are for the U.S. to champion human rights, gender equality, and peace. But when that is exchanged for imagined security established with a $110 billion arms deal, the confusion inevitably will lead to a significant loss of U.S. credibility.

Consistently telling the truth, collaborating with allies, demonstrating informed expertise, and honestly consulting with experts, all contribute to credibility. A long history of lies, bullying, attacking critics, a string of broken promises, and off-the-wall tweets, all raise real questions about motives and credibility.

As I listened to the new secretary of state describe how he was going about discussing issues such as Syria with Putin and why this is important, I was beginning to think this man is making some sense. But the Russian behavior of the president, coupled with his otherwise lack of communication credibility, raises serious questions about likely outcomes.

When it was reported that Trump gave away classified secrets to the Russians in a private meeting in the Oval Office I actually found myself  thinking, “Yep, that sounds like him.” Boasting about knowing inside secrets with people he wants to impress seems consistent with the Trump I have come to know. It’s not scientific, I know. But this is how communication works.

Former defense secretary Gates recently said he thought the firm responses to North Korea and China were appropriate. He also added, “But it’s absolutely essential to know when not to go too far.” Can we trust this president’s judgement in such a crisis?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently reported on Face the Nation that a number of longtime members of Congress who have not yet spoken out told him that “this man scares me.”  An increasing number of everyday Americans are also feeling this way… all based on past and ongoing erratic communication behavior.

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Can a large increase in the defense department budget compensate for a large decrease in the state department budget? Or to put it another way, are strong military threats more effective than strong diplomacy and soft power public diplomacy programs? And what does this have to do with education?

Experience suggests that the effectiveness of military threats depends on the country, its leader, and the circumstances of the moment. And a miscalculation can be devastating. Failure in diplomacy, however, is less risky. And while it takes more time, it certainly is preferable. And here education, especially higher education, can be helpful.

For the most part, “diplomacy” is government-to-government communication. Embassies basically function as strategic communication agencies. Foreign service officers collect vital intelligence, conduct volumes of important research, collaborate with foreign officials, champion democratic values, develop many other in-country contacts, and also can be very helpful to universities going global.

“Public diplomacy,” is people-to people communication. Its primary purpose is to facilitate private citizens in different countries getting to know each other and finding common interests… in business, the arts, education, social services, and everyday life. And they usually find they want the same basic things… food on the table, opportunities for their children, individual freedom, honest elections, a safe place to live, justice for all, and colleagues with common interests. Public diplomacy is very effective soft power, especially when funded properly and sustained.

International higher education can become an extremely effective partner in soft power public diplomacy. It is people-to-people communication. It achieves many of the same outcomes. For example, international leadership development is all about cross-cultural understanding. Many universities have researchers and experts who can help rebuild devastated nations and institutions. And there are numerous other scientists and experts who can focus their work to help solve other world problems… i.e. poverty, food, public health, water, climate change, energy, and more.

So now we return to the impact of Trump budget cuts: This administration’s plan to significantly cut the state department’s budget inevitably will have terrible consequences for vital intelligence gathering, in-country economic and other trend research, diplomacy effectiveness, soft power public diplomacy programs, and the enormous help embassies can give to universities as they seek to become productive global citizens.

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Strategy is defined as “a plan or set of maneuvers for obtaining a specific goal or result.” Tactics without strategy leaves people confused and feeling vulnerable. For some this may seem desirable. Keep them guessing, or as a colleague of mine once put it, “Don’t show your hand before you are ready to play it!”

This might work for a card game or short-term real estate games.  But in the game of world politics it can become very dangerous. Bold initiatives or tactics require context in order to be understood and trusted. Clear strategy provides context. Endless surprise initiatives do not. This is communication 101.

Allies and potential allies require knowing and sharing a set of governing strategies, having similar ideas about handling the big issues, and being able to trust commitments when the going gets rough. Playing the foreign policy game solely from the keep-them-guessing perspective eventually doesn’t work. Allies not only begin to feel uneasy, they may even soon begin to talk about erratic mental stability. Then, there is no rational basis for making crisis decisions.

And by the way, no lies please. This is also communication 101. Lies cannot remain hidden for long. And they inevitably signal someone with an insatiable ego, no consistent set of governing values, and eventually even the possibility of mental problems. One thing is for sure, constant lying never conveys superior intelligence and competitive cleverness, as every perpetrator wants you to believe. Rather it conveys a significant lack of knowledge and experience.

The bottom line is that allies need to know they can count on the leaders with whom they collaborate on serious matters. So far Mr. Trump continues to demonstrate a strong preference for throwing people off guard and tweeting off-the-wall comments. He might win a game of poker this way, but in the world of foreign policy he is on his way to having no set of informed ideas around which to bring allies together to address the world’s most pressing problems.

Be certain that nothing here has anything to do with politics or the Republican party. Everything here, however, has to do with fundamental communication dynamics and lessons learned from experience.

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