Archive for the ‘Lessons Learned’ Category

Imagine a bold and inspiring political entrepreneur rising up in reaction to the current mess and expanding political swamp in Washington. Imagine a whole new breed of leader with visionary ideas for bringing the best talent in the country to the task of solving domestic problems. Imagine an articulate leader fully committed to restoring global leadership by championing the traditional American values of individual freedom, justice, and human rights.

I write from the perspective of a communicator, not a political ideologue. I am a pragmatic, problem-solving oriented centrist. Sadly, both parties have become hopelessly polarized. One is desperate for legislative success at any cost. The other can’t seem to find a unified set of policies and vision for the future. And the administration is well on its way to building an autocracy by ending past global commitments and dismantling core government and social institutions.

Consider this: Can an American version of what happened in France happen here? Can a smart, visionary, nonpartisan, and articulate new leader with a forward-thinking and pragmatic set of fresh ideas find the support of enough disillusioned citizens and forward thinking donors to win the presidency?

My suggested talking points?

  1. I imagine a federal government with a bottom-up approach to problem-solving. I want to bring a core of proven and experienced experts into communities to research and find real solutions to real problems,
  2. By doing this we will bring back as many businesses and lost jobs as possible. But we will also study what “start-ups” are feasible and find the right people to develop them. These could be sustainable energy groups, modern thinking retailers, infrastructure construction projects, and other new ventures that can grow out of local human resources and talent.
  3. We will also help fund nearby schools and colleges to provide the necessary training for all these ventures.
  4. We will also use this same experienced expert consultant model to help public schools understand local neighborhood needs and design customized curricula that lead to realistic student successes.
  5. This change in approach to problem-solving will also gradually enable reducing the size of the federal government without hurting the delivery of essential public services or gutting vital institutions.
  6. That said, we simply must restore American global leadership by rebuilding the state department, bringing back highly experienced diplomats, and re-energizing citizen diplomacy initiatives.

The bottom line: A pathway to an effective smaller and leaner federal government, as well as the restoration of a values and equal justice based approach to world leadership, just might be possible with a whole new breed of nonpartisan and fresh thinking American leadership. Write your own suggested talking points, and let’s get started.

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Trying to understand all the parts and implications of the evolving House and Senate tax bills has been an exercise in futility. Reporters and legislators alike have been guilty of selective communication. Some by intent. Others because of deadline pressures and confusion. Making matters worse, what is emphasized and what is blurred or omitted varies with communicators and audiences.

  1. Citizen voters. It seems elementary that ordinary citizens whose lives will be changed by such sweeping pieces of legislation should have an opportunity to fully understand the content and make comments. In fact, one might even assume that every legislator would feel personally obliged to hold hearings to explain all of what is being considered, and then to eagerly listen for good ideas. Some ideas might even lead to useful changes. Listening before deciding always goes a long way toward gaining acceptance for later decisions… especially when its anticipated that the final product will not please everyone. But could all this just end up a total waste of time? After all, politics today has become little more than a high stakes money game.
  2. Donors. It’s clear that donors are at the top of the important audience list. And taking care of  the high stakes ones has become a matter of political job security. Those with the deepest pockets will certainly be intensely interested in anything to do with taxes. What helps businesses, large and small, will determine their expectations. As a result, statements that may reach average voters back home will be extremely content selective, while direct channels to significant donors will remain open 24 hours a day.
  3. Lobbyists. Special interest lobbyists constitute another audience with job security implications. Their daily work amounts to researching and supplying a constant stream of information and data that supports clients’ interests. But also the volumes of detailed background information they gather along the way saves legislative staffs huge amounts of time. In fact, lobby firms sometimes will even write early drafts of bills, and may even be allowed to comment on or edit later drafts. The bottom line is that lobbyists have become much too interconnected with daily operations to be denied significant final influence. So much for draining the swamp.
  4. Legislative colleagues. All this said, would it not also be politically wise to give colleagues from both parties an opportunity to read drafts and discuss them in committees and hearings. After all, if anything backfires or crashes later on, a few timely compromises now might save the day. Yes, but the fear today is that this kind of open discussion will release too much information too soon, and then those poor citizen’s back home might actually find out exactly who and what money interests are actually restructuring their lives.

The truth today is that in this instant news, polarized, and money dominated society, meeting the endless needs of big donors and ever-present lobby firms has become the name of the entire political game. As for selective  communication about tax cuts and its consequences, those whose lives will be most changed may have to wait a long time to know and feel the full impact of what really happened to them.


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Autocracies happen gradually. The first indication is that a significant number of citizens are feeling ignored by the current political system, are gradually becoming angry, and will soon be ready to respond to a new and out-of-the box leader.

  1. The first step is that someone outside the political establishment with at least a modicum of performance ability and an abundance of political ambition begins to promise “I know how to make your life better, and only I can make it happen!” This becomes a theme, and is endlessly repeated at every opportunity.
  2. Next, many people in society’s mainstream begin to notice some signs of an emerging autocrat, but chose to think that “it can’t happen here.” (Consider Germany during the 1930’s)
  3. The “only me” message is reinforced by attacks on the free press. This tactic first creates a cloud of uncertainty about finding truth in a cluttered and confusing news environment, but soon morphs into charges that the press generates “fake news” simply to make trouble and advance itself.
  4. Next, the court system is attacked as ineffective and too political. The purpose is to warn the public that some exceptions to normal legal processes might be necessary in order to get essential changes made quickly.
  5. The competence of current agencies and departments long-established to investigate internal and external wrong-doing will also be challenged. This is a move made to eventually gain control of what and who these units will investigate.
  6. Key experts and top positions in other important government departments and institutions will also be eliminated. The justification for this is that the new leader has plans to solve the major domestic and world problems, and so these positions are wasteful and no longer needed. (In the US this has included the state department, homeland security, consumer protection, environmental protection, and more.)
  7. The way has now been cleared to bring people into the government based completely on their personal loyalty and wealth. These oligarchs have no expertise for their assigned positions, but it no longer matters because one person will be making all important decisions.
  8. The new leader’s family will also enter government. They, along with the other oligarchs, will use their new-found celebrity to further enrich themselves. And it won’t seem to matter that their inexperience often leads to inept and often embarrassing behavior.
  9. Eventually every important social institution will be systematically weakened, either through cuts in funding or executive orders. This will include public education, universities, charities, the arts, and much more. A nation is only as strong as its institutions. But an autocracy can only survive if it weakens them.
  10. After a few months, important allies around the world will begin to ignore all the “me first” initiatives and start to make other commitments. New partnerships, trade arrangements,  environmental agreements, and defense treaties will replace old ones… and a whole new generation of world leaders will begin to take center stage.

The big lesson for us is that a nation is only as strong as its most effective and active institutions. To seize control autocrats must weaken them. But as a consequence, they will eventually find themselves isolated… and their countries in deep decline. And, yes, all this is already happening here.

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This essay has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is about how self-centered and hateful communication can screw up everything, especially governing.

We have a president who uses attacks as ways to force deals. He doesn’t negotiate them. He makes demands with no plans in hand, or even the vocabulary required to explain them. He uses an autocrat’s style, transparently driven by a relentless “it’s all about me” ego. Even when he reads a thoughtful script written for him, it’s clear that this uncomfortable “reader” is not really him. And so the fear of what he might say or do next continues.

At the same time, elected officials have created a vicious competition-based legislative process that has become so entrenched there seems to be no other way they can try to do business. The result is severe polarization, extreme thinking, and an overall meanness that has made too many legislators blind to the horror they have created. For the most part, both major political parties are now talking only to themselves internally, making each other believe that their extreme ideologies are best for everyone. All it takes is standing back for a second or two to know that problems just don’t get solved that way.

The result in Washington is a mean-spirited environment, and a totally confused nation. A deluge of negative and contradictory stuff just keeps coming every day from the White House, from legislators, from special interests, and from the news media. And try as they might to sort things out, the 24/7 news media also ends up adding more clutter than clarity.

Finding and communicating simple truth in the midst of overwhelming clutter is almost impossible. There certainly are many good people trying to do it. But in a churning sea of turmoil even top experts can’t agree, constant lies begin to sound true, and the ongoing build-up of clutter continues to confuse. Our only hope is that somehow responsible fact-hawks will persist and endure, and their never-ending determination will sooner or later enable truth to break through.

With the incredible cost of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, frequent nuclear threats from North Korea, and countless other threatening issues facing legislators, what can we expect from a president and federal government in ceaseless and senseless turmoil? Or maybe the better question is this: Will these crisis moments be big enough to break through crippling legislative extremism and a self-obsessed president to finally make the greater public good our national priority? We all better hope so. The stakes have never been higher.

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Weather disasters seem to define the crisis management role of cities, states and the federal government with a clarity we otherwise rarely see. We now have another example in Texas. Weather-related or not, the fact is that most large-scale crises happen in cities… be they about gang or police violence, illegal immigration, homegrown or international terrorism, contagious diseases, school shootings, tornadoes, hurricanes, and even transgender-bathroom disputes.

If you have followed the recent weather disaster in Texas you heard the federal coordinator say that local officials are the ones responsible for managing the situation, and that federal resources are authorized by the president when requested by governors. You also heard him dance around questions about homeland security budget cuts and reduced numbers of staff, while giving credit to a president who has been shying away from any out-front leadership. It’s important to note here that this president actually said at a news conference that he picked the unfolding disaster in Houston as the time to pardon a politically supportive sheriff who broke the law because the “ratings would be higher.”

Nonetheless, past experience suggests that Texas can expect federal help for search and rescue, and a presidential visit or two. But search and rescue is one thing, and rebuilding is something else. It’s important to remember that following major storm “Sandy” in the northeast it was politicians from the Texas region of the country who blocked essential additional emergency funding.

It is true that governors have a stronger role when it comes to funding first-responders, mobilizing state public safety and shelter resources, and even calling-up the national guard. But many governors also face disasters with limited budget and staffing levels that are the result of their own narrow partisan priorities. Even so, search and rescue will get funded somehow, and some rebuilding projects probably will too. But Houston citizens were also truthfully told early on by their mayor that they cannot rely on rescue help getting to them, that they should focus on saving themselves, and that they must help each other. And this is precisely what they are doing.

The truth is that when the disaster smoke finally clears getting needed help to citizens will continue to be a relentless and daily city reality. As a result many cities around the world have become extremely effective at taking a practical approach to addressing their own problems… even national and international ones, for that matter. Immigration issues and terrorism threats, for example, are alive in most city neighborhoods.

While nations and states tend to be highly political in all matters, more and more cities are not. Cities are therefore learning to take practical advantage of the many partnership resources available to help them. Universities, public schools, businesses of all kinds, neighborhood groups, experienced professionals, museums, performing arts groups, nonprofits, individual volunteers, associations, churches, civic clubs, supermarkets, restaurants, and even local news outlets… all have strong vested-interests in their cities, and surprising problem-solving capabilities.

On-the-ground experience quickly teaches that serious problem-solving and political ideologies don’t mix. Partisans end up talking only to each other and believing that their narrow ideology-based ideas benefit everyone. These partisans mostly end up problem-creators, not solvers. It’s therefore a very good thing that mayors and city managers around the world are gaining valuable experience in nonpartisan crisis management and practical problem-solving.

Houston will become still another example that these experience-educated city leaders will be needed everywhere in the world in the days ahead.

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Communication lessons learned:

Experience and research teach that intended messages are often not what audiences receive. Therefore, what a monument communicates will depend on what its’ various audiences want to receive. And even then, that will likely change when situational, historical or political circumstances change.

When a monument is intended to mark a historical event, it should best be placed in a museum-like environment where context can help reinforce its history lesson purpose. A clearly defined indoor or outdoor museum space with historical captions and explanations is the best approach. Otherwise, any monument will mean different things to different people, and there is no way to change that.

So in the case of today’s monument controversy, unless they are already located in a museum-like space, some people will be thinking either positively or negatively about a divided country, white supremacists and Nazis will have racist and pro-slavery responses, others may simply see a message of hate, and only a very few will see the monuments as purely historical. And the strong emotion produced by all these different responses will very likely lead to hostile demonstrations, and some of those certainly may turn violent.

For better or worse? Simply put, context clearly helps define how most messages are received. If a statement is intended to be historical, a clearly defined historical context is essential. Otherwise, most people will only “hear what they want to hear.”




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To what extent does the overall tone of presidential leadership influence the behavior of members of the public. If that tone is positive and unifying will it help bring about unity? And if it is combative and hostile will it encourage people with similar inclinations to act out their anger?

My experience over the years working with institutional presidents is that their tone certainly influences the cultural characteristics of their institutions. When a president is out front and aggressive, message tone often shapes brand identity more than the content. Sometimes it’s a culture of strong optimism. Sometimes it’s a culture based on deeply felt human values. Sometimes it’s a culture of big vision and teamwork. But sometimes it can be a negative culture of blame and unending criticism. And especially when that tone is the expression of the president’s long-established attitudes and behaviors, it is not likely to change.

The president of a nation similarly sets the tone for that nation with words and deeds. A chief of staff can improve daily operations. Second level administrators can set a different tone for their operation.  But only the person at the top can establish the nation’s tone.

So what about Charlottesville?  Did the previously combative and autocratic style of the current U.S. president establish a tone that encouraged white supremacists and other hate groups to show up, feel empowered, and behave violently? If his consistently hostile tone was a factor in causing the event, what happened when the television cameras arrived?

Clearly, television coverage gave the event a world-wide audience. Close ups made the violence more emotional. Lively reporting and commentary turned it into engaging “reality TV,” a situation with which Mr. Trump is perfectly comfortable. Those who planned the event got the mass publicity and validation they wanted, and the final outcome is that we are left with the fear that copy-cat violence and events like this will likely be ongoing public safety worries.

Make no mistake, a consistent and combative tone at the top of any organization or nation will encourage people with similar hostile inclinations to act out their anger in both small and large ways. When this happens, entire organizations and societies will inevitably experience increasing amounts of hate speech and violence.

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