Archive for January, 2018

Lesson 422 Year One: The State Of The Presidency?

A colleague once pointed out to me that the state of the presidency is the state of the union. If true, what kind of presidency do we have after year one?

A noted history scholar recently wrote to me that many conservative thinkers over the years actually had no problem with autocrats. They believed that firm control was required to implement needed change, and that democratic processes often lead to endless discussions and too much uncertainty. So do we have a collaborative and inclusive president or one headed toward the firm control of an autocracy?

I remember reading about business people who were interviewed after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Many noted that as long as they did not challenge him they were free to operate their businesses as they wished, and prospered. They actually preferred that to the chaos after the war. But others disagreed, noting that Hussein’s dictatorship lacked basic human justice and was well on its way to self-destruction.

Another colleague compared what we have now in the US to what happened in Germany in the 1930’s. Hitler recognized that the needs of a substantial number of Germans were not being addressed. His promise to address those needs had strong appeal. And while hints of racism were noticeable, it seemed far-fetched to think he would or could ever act on them. But he did.

It’s always likely that many conservative thinkers and politicians will prefer strong leadership control to bring about needed change. It’s also always true that many others will think that social collaboration and teamwork are necessary to advance American constitutional values and meet the needs of society as a whole. And, of course, there always is the simple matter of personal character, behavior, and stability vs. the end justifies the means.

So, if how goes the presidency is how goes the union: After year one, what kind of presidency do we have?

This is a good time to scroll down and read (or reread) Lesson 413:  Ten Steps To An Autocracy. And Lesson 404: Daily Attacks On Institutions Weakens Nations.


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Republicans and Democrats are talking mostly to themselves. Issues debates are about one party appearing to win out over the other. And in such situations the best interest of the country becomes secondary. Ideology trumps rationality.

The current shutdown debate contains too many different issues. The outcome is a mess which no outside observer can understand. Each of these issues should have been addressed earlier, separately, and rationally. But we are learning that rational problem-solving is virtually impossible in a one party dominated congress, even though conventional wisdom might suggest otherwise. And we also have a president who makes the situation worse by choosing disruption and chaos over unifying leadership.

More statesman-like progress was possible back in the day when both parties were more evenly represented and presidents were more rational. Granted, sometimes shutdowns occurred. But back then elected officials moved their whole families to Washington. Spouses and children got to know each other in schools and grocery stores. And people from both parties got to know and like each other at weekend social events. The result was that cross-party friendships developed into more bipartisan cooperation. And in such a setting the reason for any shutdown was more clear, and what could stop it was as well.

Most legislators now spend no more than 4 days each week in Washington. Much of that time is spent on the phone raising money. Then, it’s off to home over the weekend to schmooze with big donors. This pattern has grown into a meanness of spirit and polarization that has overtaken Washington. The outcome is that these people simply don’t like each other very much. Debates are brutal, and win-win outcomes are all but impossible.

Most of us know that in the real world complex problem-solving is a grey area endeavor. The best solutions are always the result of bringing the most informed and talented experts together in a give-and-take process. And while initial solutions are rarely final, fixes can always be found later. After all, what organization or business could function very long if extreme ideology disputes constantly paralyzed rational decision-making rendering incremental progress impossible?

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Revolutions in media have changed how basic communication works. They have also changed the fundamental dynamics of leadership. I spent most of 50 years working for or with leaders of institutions. Many were presidents, chancellors, and CEO’s of major universities. And for a good portion of that time I also worked with legislative and government leaders to influence their policy decisions. Here are the basic lessons I learned:

  1. True leaders talk about immediate problems within a larger framework of shared values and service to humanity. In politics, they know that it’s only when governing that successful ways forward can be found on such issues as infrastructure, healthcare, global warming, energy, trade, and immigration.
  2. Effective campaigning and governing are two separate endeavors. Political campaigns are about party ideology. Governing is about statesmanship and a determination to find win-win solutions. True leadership is the ability to define a higher road for both. This means incorporating ideas about human values, freedom, justice, and the higher calling of public service.
  3. True leadership is also about possessing empathy and the ability to express it. This demonstrates a deeper understanding of people’s needs and how to use that understanding to unify an institution or country.
  4. Even in business true leaders will usually have strong character traits linked to a passion for making a significant difference for the society as a whole. And they will use this link to attract equally passionate supporters.
  5. In addition, true leaders know that their enterprises must become “learning organizations.” A learning organization is one that provides courses, seminars, and group experiences so that people at all levels can stay on the cutting edge of their professions. The organization that learns the most succeeds the most.
  6. True leaders do NOT engage in fear-mongering. Playing to fears divides people and encourages anger and violence. This kind of negative environment will often lead to bold promises that never see the light of day.
  7. And true leaders will NOT base their leadership style on degrading past decisions and people. Constantly pointing out what’s wrong with the news media, government, other institutions, or predecessors is simply counterproductive. Attacking predecessors not only divides… it makes permanent enemies. Attacking journalism has always been ineffective… consider the Pentagon Papers and Richard Nixon. And attacking government in general makes it all but impossible to improve the services that everyone knows to be essential.

Social media and 24/7 cable news have created a whole new communication landscape. And it’s not about whether or not to tweet. Rather it’s about the quality of the message and person behind it. It’s about cutting through lies, clutter, and confusion with messages that enlighten, unify, and inspire. And finally, it’s about separating the true leaders from the would-be autocrats. One can only imagine how Martin Luther King, Jr. would deal with the disruptions of the digital world… and the president who claims to be making America great again with his tweets.

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Lesson 419 Fire and Fury In The White House!

The release over the weekend of the new book about the inner workings of the White House reveals just how much confusion the latest digital media revolution has created about what is really going on in the world.

24/7 cable news and social media contribute to the confusion by releasing hourly flows of unedited news and commentary. Even mainstream White House journalists inadvertently contribute to the confusion by being careful how they report what they know. Otherwise they fear losing their daily access. Add to this news releases from lobbyists, PR firms, businesses, nonprofits, NGO’s, associations, embassy’s, and more, and you pretty much have mass confusion. Lies begin to sound true, expert disagreements further confuse, and tolerance for vulgarity and personal attacks becomes commonplace. Ultimately, everything turns to mush.

It takes a trustworthy author who can somehow slide inside a controversial situation like this and stay there long enough to pull together an accurate story out of the bits and pieces of daily activities. But it is important to note that even with the most reputable of authors these books are rarely perfectly accurate. As a writer of books myself, I can tell you that a few missteps almost always happen as a natural part of the complicated mental process of pulling together reams of notes and recordings.

So the challenge for the reader of Fire and Fury will be to decide whether or not this author’s professional integrity and judgment can be trusted. And then, based on other readings and investigations does his conclusion ring true?

What is frightening about this book is how true the overall message rings to so many established longtime journalists and scholars. Yes, some have already pointed out that this author has written other controversial books, and that his writing style has a dramatic novel-like flair. And yes, some have reported finding a few specific misquotes and mistakes. But the author promises that he has recordings of all his interviews and firmly asserts that virtually everyone he interviewed and talked with agrees with his conclusion: Mr. Trump behaves like a child, reads nothing, has little patience in a meeting, works fewer and fewer hours every day, and makes everything completely about himself.

So my recommendation to you is this: Read the book and reflect on everything else you have read and believe to be true. Do this, and at the very least I think you will come away paying even more attention to every one of Mr. Trump’s future tweets and disruptive pronouncements. This is not just Trump being Trump. It could be a matter of life and death for millions.


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When an organization’s founding brand identity is replaced by something totally different, the result is the end of one organization and the start-up of another. Similarly, when a nation’s founding identity (ours is based on democratic values, freedom, and justice) is replaced by one based on autocratic whims and disruptive individual transactions the result will be the end of one nation and the start-up of another.

A growing number of Americans wake every morning worried about what Mr. Trump will say or do next. Many look desperately for even the slightest sign of hope: A small positive utterance from China. Or a no rocket day from Rocket man. Or a surprise tweet-free golfing with friends day. Or a slight nod toward token cooperation with an ally. Or at least one day of not being outmaneuvered once again by Putin.

Even the most hardened journalists sometimes find themselves seeing small gestures as slight signs of hope. But when smoke clears we all really know that Trump’s America is only about him. It has become little more than a realty show makeover. “Make America great again” simply means make America powerful and feared, and the consequence is the total abdication of world leadership based on human rights and justice. Even his domestic success rests on countless empty promises, which in time must crumble under the weight of lifelong character flaws and hypocrisy.

This is not the America we inherited. It is the start-up of a totally different country. To fix it we must put aside political ideology. Ideology has nothing to do with this. It is simply about bringing back America’s founding values and the brand identity the world has counted on. And to do that 2018 must also be the year of saying “hell no” to autocracy. As the United States of America we really have no choice.

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