Archive for the ‘Lessons Learned’ Category

I was planning to offer a new course on the communication dimensions of leadership and wanted to add material on why understanding the impact of media revolutions was especially important today for anyone who aspires to lead. Conveniently, I came upon a brilliant new book on leadership by General Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman titled, Radical Inclusion, and it happened to contain some compelling new ideas about media.

The media topic is important for leaders for many reasons. The digital revolution is creating a bewildering world of clutter and confusion. Sending out more information is usually only adding to the clutter. Debates today are polarizing more than educating. Television is expanding the leadership advantage of celebrity and entertaining. Repeating lies over and over again is making them sound true. Misusing words is causing them to lose their meaning. Crude language and personal attacks are becoming widely acceptable. And the realization that top experts disagree on most everything is causing average Americans to throw up their hands in confusion.

And just as I was ready to teach my fully revised seminar, the Trump campaign appeared… and the impact of 24/7 news and social media suddenly became much more intense.

Studying the Trump campaign and first year of his presidency was a total immersion in chaos and turmoil. But it helped me see with even more clarity that this digital media revolution is actually creating a new and powerful media “ecosystem,” a system with interacting and interconnecting facts and fictions capable of producing permanent clutter and confusion. As a result the world will never be the same. Leading will be forever changed, And the Dempsey and Brafman book arrived just in time to add very relevant new media insights.

The daily deluge of digital news and social media is actually forming what the Radical Inclusion authors call a permanent  “digital echo,” a state of clutter and confusion that always will be hanging over us. The implications of this for leaders are enormous. “Ways forward” will never again be based on perceived certain truths. That’s because in this digital world there are no reliable truths. As a result, leading may now require imagining and acting out compelling “narratives” more than preparing detailed position papers.

In other words, instead of writing big data-driven strategic plans, to be really effective today aspiring leaders may now need to chart out exciting storyboards and recruit the most talented supporting characters they can find to help tell their stories and act out their dramatic narratives. It’s no longer quiet time in the library. Now, it’s quiet on the set!

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When someone is hired or elected to lead your company, organization or nation what do you expect? Would you hire someone with a record like this?

Past business behavior. Often failed to honor contract labor obligations. Blamed others for his business failures and bankruptcies. Has an overly pompous and self-righteous reputation. Did not always pay back loans. Investigative journalists have written about the criminal and autocratic background of some associates.

Past personal behavior.  A record of numerous sexual harassment and assault charges. Bragged on tape about groping women. Attacks and bullies adversaries. Lies and exaggerates about accomplishments. Always claims that “only I can do it,” rejecting the value of teamwork. Uses “funny names” to intimidate people.

Current leadership behavior. Attacks the press as fake news while generating fake news himself. Uses Tweets to divert attention from serious issues, or to simply create chaos. Agrees to reasonable solutions in meetings and later abruptly changes his mind. Fails to show respect for predecessors and traditional allies. Pulls out of international agreements with no consultation. Arbitrarily ends regulations without regard for the impact on clean air, the environment, or public safety. Makes statements that create divisions. Often sounds racist. Shows no concern for the hostility that his rhetoric encourages. And craves flattery… making himself vulnerable to manipulation by other heads of state.

Morality and the U.S. Constitution. It has been assumed from the very beginning that our nation’s leaders will affirm a belief in individual freedom, equal justice, opportunity for all, and the pursuit of the greater good… and thus will make personal behavior and governance decisions based on those values. No president has been perfect. But this is the measure by which their place in history will always be determined.

The constitution simply puts forth a set of uniquely American values. It certainly never suggests that a president’s ends can justify any means. The “means” are those positive and opportunity enabling spaces where the American dream can come true for everyone. Thus, our country can return to greatness only when those uniquely American values once again shape the means by which it is led.

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“Out of control” is picking up steam in Washington, and it’s worse than reality TV. It’s using social media to confuse, not communicate. It’s about a president who believes that keeping people guessing is a legitimate leadership strategy. And it’s turning out to be the best example yet of how communication and media chaos can destroy any sense of social order and well-being. Make no mistake. Words really do matter. And the words of top leaders matter a lot.

Just think about it. Periodic bi-partisan White House meetings repeatedly turn out to be no more than reality TV. Twitter feeds always follow to disrupt and create chaos. Then more surprise pronouncements add to the chaos. And in the midst of this mess cabinet members and staff are doing high security work without clearances and squandering taxpayer money on luxury travel and purchases. And this is a White House where complete loyalty is demanded by the person who is creating the mess. No wonder resignations are rapidly mounting up. Constant turmoil eventually becomes unbearable.

Sometime around mid-career I found myself teaching management communication in banks, manufacturing companies, public utilities, and all manner of institutions. We frequently talked about crisis management. But I must admit it was always in the context of a rational CEO with a team of experienced managers developing responses so that the organization would be legitimately seen as knowing what it’s doing! When the purpose of the leader, however, is to create chaos… all rational bets are off!

Ethical leadership and honest teamwork “earn” loyalty. No need to demand it. But when loyalty is demanded and communication is in disarray everyone ends up focusing on their own survival. In private business, trustees can fix such situations. In today’s Washington, there are no rational fixes

In the past, I wrote that city leaders usually become bipartisan and pragmatic because their citizens are right there in their face demanding action. When all is said and done, immigration, homegrown terrorism, police-community relations, drug problems, air pollution, clean water, healthcare, election districts, industry closings, and unemployment, all end up playing themselves out locally.

In the end, maybe the bottom-up pragmatism of cities and NOT the top-down chaos of Washington is our best way forward. If so, when cities show they can produce results, we should pressure Washington into giving them the resources they need.

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Instead of improving our overall ability to better understand each other, the recent 24/7 social media revolution unintentionally created a ripe breeding ground for confusing and often quite hostile political and issue polarization.

It eventually became very clear to me that in this emotionally charged world political ideology actually was contributing very little to serious problem-solving. And it also became clear to me that governing was becoming hopelessly combative. Now it seems that finding reasonable ways forward will require commissioned groups of experienced experts and honest citizens working constructively together.

Obviously, this has not happened. Instead our political system has degenerated into information warfare. As viciously negative advertising and political district gerrymandering became successful in getting people elected, the sad consequence of all this fighting has been the destruction of public trust.

When President Trump established uncompromising expectations related to industrial regulations, climate change, free trade, immigration, tax cuts, the justice system, and traditional institutions of government, he was certain he could dictate it all. And his continuing lies, bullying, personal attacks, war provocations, and admiration of autocrats, are clear examples that he aims to use “by any means necessary” to achieve his ends.

We have also seen this same anything-goes attitude play out in Congress. Extreme House Republicans tried to protect the President from ongoing misbehavior investigations by attacking the integrity of the investigators with a selectively worded and conspiracy-inciting report. House Democrats have now responded with their own selectively worded counter-report. Ends by any means necessary is also now commonplace in Congress.

In the wake of the recent high school shooting in Florida we are seeing the NRA resort to potentially destructive means. They broadened their rhetoric way beyond a rational case for hunting and self-protection to viciously attacking the patriotism of every different-thinking person. If it continues, this level of outright fear-mongering can easily lead to country-wide culture wars… and much worse.

Evangelicals on a bus in Israel were asked why they supported the president. Constant lies and immoral behavior seem contrary to traditional Christian teachings. Their response, however, was that the Bible says Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel and this president is God’s way of bringing that about. As for the president’s character and immoral behavior, Jesus forgives. So ends justify means here as well.

But ends never work out as perpetrators originally imagined. And their means are what become the substance of our everyday lives. Today extremists are appearing everywhere. Most have a fear-mongering purpose. They include Russian agents, racists of all kinds, political extremists, political action committees, and even grassroots patriots with narrow interpretations of the U.S. constitution.

A constant daily diet of  “by any means necessary” has the potential to destroy civic society. If the president and congress would only commission work groups of genuine experts and experienced citizens to find real solutions to real problems we might eventually find a rational way out of some of this mess!


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Russia has been engaging in information warfare for a very long time. The recent U.S. Justice Department indictment of three Russian organizations and 13 Russian agents for meddling in the 2016 presidential election is a clear explanation of the destructive intentions of fake news.

Russia’s goals: Hurt the Clinton campaign; promote the Trump campaign ; divide and inflame voters on issues such as race, healthcare, police, climate change, etc.; and undermine general voter confidence in American democracy.

Let me first unpack what this indictment is and is not. It is only about social media attacks. It is not about the impact of computer hacking and WikiLeaks on the election. It does not address the potential “obstruction of justice’ issue. And it does not address “witting” campaign”collusion” with Russians, or potential blackmail situations. Each of these are separate investigations, and will be addressed by special counsel later.

The thirty-seven page indictment does, however, describe how “fake news” is generated and where it is placed in social media platforms:

  • Positive and negative advertising, as well as divisive messages (often made-up lies), were placed inside Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and other social media platforms. Some platforms have added news features which have been compromised.
  • “Theme pages” were created to distribute misinformation to special interest groups, i.e. Islam, Healthcare, Pro-life, etc.
  • Individual U.S. citizen identities were stolen with thousands of divisive and anger-producing messages sent from them, using an automated feature called “bots.” Fictitious identities were also created and used in the same way.
  • Russians also collaborated on campaign initiatives with “unwitting” Trump campaign people, who were apparently unaware they were working with Russians.
  • Russian agents also came to the U.S. and staged separate campaigns, heckled rallies, and sought out unknowing but sympathetic American collaborators.
  • And of course many of these ads, messages and staged events were picked up and reported as real news by the mainstream and 24/7 cable media.
  • It is reported that Russian information warfare in ongoing, and following the recent school shooting is now focused on support for gun rights.

This indictment provides solid information to help us understand social media warfare no matter what country it emanates from. Russia has been perfecting their techniques for years in Europe, and is highly experienced at infiltrating political systems long before political campaigns begin. They offer politicians and government officials  real estate deals in Russia, buy property in their target countries, and watch for opportunities to set up individual blackmail traps.

A report titled “The Kremlin Playbook” is available at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (csis.org) in Washington. It is an eye-opening read and provides more details on how Russians wage information warfare.

When nations, institutions, and their leaders use social media platforms such as twitter to spread disinformation, and then spread more confusion by attacking otherwise trustworthy journalists as fake news, civil society will simply cease to exist.






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In our 24/7 emotionally charged media intensive and divisive society, can an increase in violent citizen behavior become encouraged by the tone and style of top leadership?

Here are a few leadership communication dynamics lessons:

Anger begets anger… My rocket is bigger than yours. My military parade is more intimidating than yours. My language is crude and belligerent and you can talk that way too. I can bully people, and watch me to see how to do it. Or, I can threaten violence, and you might be able to justify it sometimes too.

Give yourself some politically neutral space and it becomes pretty clear that mean-spirited behavior can multiply many times over in followers. Call someone an enemy and they will likely become dangerous. Lead with an intolerant personality and you will likely increase intolerance overall.

Lies beget more lies. Cheating begets more cheating. An extravagant leader in lifestyle spending models and encourages that in others. Make promises you can’t deliver on, and your colleagues will too. And all this encourages a preferred social class that squeezes the sense of well-being out of others.

What’s most dangerous is that an arrogant air of superiority in a leader can produce a fantasy movie-like image of an “outlaw (reality show) celebrity.” Those who are moved to model that behavior might seek that same kind of celebrity by attacking violently, or shooting up a school.

More and more and bigger and bigger guns become a part of the culture in a nation growing in intolerant extremes. And that is where outlawing military style automatic weapons in the hands of citizens in no way harms hunting or personal protection, and is therefore not a violation of the second amendment. It is only devastating to the profits of their manufacturers.

On the other hand, tolerance, empathy, and fairness are also contagious qualities of leadership. Why, you ask, would anyone think Oprah would make a good president?  In this climate that’s simple. They think she would be fair, bring people together, surround herself with real professionals, and quickly learn what she does not know about the job. Right now that “trumps” what we have.

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The simple laptop accelerated the development of global markets and enabled those who knew how to use technology to become competitive from any place in the world. As a result, globalization has become an established fact, and political ideologues have had little to do with it. It’s mostly about technology and economics.

  1. The digital technology revolution changed the speed and direction of the international economy which rapidly changed the dynamics, relationships and opportunities of businesses, institutions and nations.
  2. Even the smallest businesses and institutions now could easily find foreign customers and clients… and thereby become global enterprises that are not limited by borders.
  3. Admittedly many companies that move operations and plants to other countries are seeking cheaper labor. But many are also becoming global businesses, ones that operate beyond the boundaries of their countries.
  4. As a consequence most of these companies will not return. And those that do will automate rather than replace lost jobs.
  5. Like it or not, governments and institutions are already operating in a global economy. Their futures will be shaped more by unavoidable economic forces than by the whims of individual autocrats. Professional diplomacy between governments and public diplomacy between citizens and organizations are absolutely essential in such a world.
  6. It is true that President Trump’s base has not benefited enough from this global economy, and this has been ignored by the majority of a polarized and politicized Washington.
  7. But more focus on community college education and better training programs for a technology driven world are the only viable solutions. Therefore, supporting training and education budgets with adequate resources is the most productive thing Washington can do now.
  8. As higher education becomes a global industry, international leadership development, better cross-cultural understanding, and the soft-power of citizen diplomacy will gradually produce a wiser world. Many institutions will also find themselves focusing more of their research and consulting talent on solving global problems… big problems such as poverty, disease, climate change, clean energy, water shortage, space exploration, nation rebuilding, and many more.

Reopening old coal mines, bringing back assembly lines, expanding offshore oil and gas exploration, eliminating clean air and water regulations, closing borders, selling off national parks, and restricting trade… none of these are viable solutions in a technology driven world. Rather the future will be in preparing, educating, and training American citizens for a completely new and digitally transforming world economy.

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