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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.

Many years ago I used a film called “Meetings Bloody Meetings” in some management training. It was a hilarious look at why so many people say they hate meetings, and it demonstrated many of the problems associated with making meetings productive.

I was reminded about this film and its lessons when I overheard a reporter talking on television about a meeting he attended in the White House Oval Office. Apparently the president briefed reporters with numerous staff members constantly wandering in and out. The meeting was not well-organized and took place in a confusing and chaotic environment. The reporter came out not sure about why he was there.

VIP’s have been invited to the White House for meetings that obviously were not called to use their experience and expertise to find workable solutions to complex problems. Rather they simply appeared to be awkward gatherings of important people to hear a brief report from the president, give a few informal reactions, and then be photographed.

Effective meetings are complicated and require expertise. My training film showed meetings that were called at times people were not prepared to listen, or were confused about the purpose. The film also depicted the consequences of inadequate preparation, the absence of an agenda, poor group facilitation, missing key people, people present without a role, needed expertise that was not there, distracting noise nearby, and much more.

Successful information giving, problem-solving, planning, and evaluation meetings all have their own planning, facilitation, and follow-up requirements. Meeting management expertise is therefore a requirement for everyone involved in advancing institutions, causes, and yes even cities, states, and countries.

Sadly, after 100 days of governing many observers are still wondering if critical domestic and foreign policy decision-making meetings at the White House are engaging the best experts and incorporating even a few of the most essential planning and process requirements.

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson said it best… when he said, “Let’s make America smart again!”

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine added factual clarity to what most us already know. The article is titled, “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It,” and its author Jonathan Mahler describes the drama driven approach to journalism of the President of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker.

Mahler points out that prior to coming to CNN Zucker had a successful entertainment career at NBC, with executive stints in Hollywood and New York. He held several entertainment related positions, including President of NBC Entertainment. In that role he had many successes, including improving the ratings of both the Today Show by adding “stunts” and the Apprentice by encouraging Trump to be Trump. As a result, Trump became a reality show star who gradually attracted a huge following, a following which over time enabled him to think about running for president. What’s revealing is that both Trump and Zucker share a passion for drama and entertainment.

So when Mr. Zucker came to CNN he brought a well-developed talent for bringing entertainment values and drama to news. He accomplished this by orchestrating what Mahler describes as “must see TV,” an “unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and Darwinian confrontations” produced entirely in a CNN studio. Mahler describes Zucker standing over program producers during newscasts giving them questions and comments to pass on to the anchors through their ear pieces.

As the sub-title of the article states, there continues to be “a strange symbiosis” between Zucker and President Trump. It began with the Apprentice at NBC, and is continuing in more subtle ways since Zucker moved to CNN. They both want to create drama. They both entertain. And as a result, CNN news ratings and profits have never been higher.

The fact is CNN’s success very likely depends on Trump continuing to be Trump. If Trump suddenly became more predictable, thoughtful and Presidential, CNN’s profits and ratings could suddenly drop. And this could also happen far beyond CNN.

Almost every media organization has benefited from Trump’s off-the-wall tweets and attacks. The more he attacks the media the better the drama. The better the drama the more interest there is in tomorrow’s news stories! The more sustained the interest, the higher the ratings and profits. So what is the incentive for the news media to run him off? Truthfully… other than a belief in truth and character credibility, very little.

A colleague once told me that my problem was I thought every problem was a communication problem. After 50 years of working nonstop to understand the dynamics of communication I must say I eventually did conclude that big problems usually do have a communication dimension significant enough to be the main problem.

This spring I have been teaching a graduate seminar on the communication dimensions of leadership. When I first planned this seminar I had no idea that a very bizarre presidential election resulting in a very unconventional president would demand that I take a deep dive into trying to understand what was happening… especially from a communication perspective.

Constant outrageous remarks guaranteed daily media visibility. Widespread dissatisfaction with lawmakers in Washington guaranteed an audience willing to listen. Unpredictability appeared to be a strategy that was working. And for a period of time I must admit I began questioning the lesson I thought I had learned…  that a set of basic ideas which enabled some degree of predictability was necessary to establish and maintain leadership credibility.

After several months of reassessment, however, I am once again confident that my lesson-learned was correct: Telling audiences what they want to hear can gain temporary followers. But ultimately, credibility built on proven truthfulness and trust are essential for most followers to continue following. Performers without substance will be cast aside. And autocrats without trust will eventually be overthrown.

With this in mind it has been interesting to watch wishful pundits change their commentaries to “hopeful” after Mr. Trump flipped campaign promises to make several conventional military action decisions. But is it not true that 70 years of past behavior will clearly communicate a person’s mind-set and character? And what does it tell you when that behavior featured endless lying, cruel attacks, bullying, vulgar public remarks, and totally disruptive off-the-wall comments and tweets?

Fifty years of experience as a practitioner, writer, teacher and consultant tells me that this kind of unpredictable, disruptive, contradictory, and often cruel behavior does not produce a set of sustainable governing ideas or a trustworthy leader. We do not have “a failure to communicate” here. Rather, we have an embarrassing failure to recognize what was being communicated all along.

When championing institutions, causes, or countries, who is selected for the leadership team sends a loud and clear message about capabilities and priorities.

A highly respected scholar recently added to my fears about the current White House team. His comment went something like this: Would-be autocrats and dictators bring family members into power with them, surround themselves with oligarchs and devoted political supporters, constantly attack journalists, ignore laws they don’t like, disregard constitutions, and pack courts with sympathizers.

So these questions suddenly seem especially pertinent:

Are highly experienced experts in place for each and every team responsibility? Can private family members really function effectively in a highly complicated tax-supported government? How many team members have been selected more for loyalty and private wealth than professional competence? How many staff members are uncertain about how much responsibility they really have? Is attacking critics and the press getting in the way of effective daily operations?

And more specifically about this White House:

Should expressing admiration for Russian and Egyptian dictators, issuing daily disruptive and convoluted tweets, and making quick reversals on strong campaign promises, give us pause? And should leaks about constant in-fighting among all levels of staff, inexperienced team members pushing extreme political ideologies, and key staff conflicts with members of the president’s powerful family, concern us?

Many informed analysts point out that every new administration has a shakedown period that it usually survives. So you might conclude that everything will eventually work out. But when the most influential team members are family, oligarchs, political ideologues, and well-meaning loyal friends… and the rest of the staff is in some state of turmoil… I say bone-up on the history of Western civilization and get ready for a very bumpy ride!

Since the election it has become even more apparent that Mr. Trump’s primary communication talent is as a dramatic performer. He simply never developed an intellectual frame of reference that brings consistency to his rhetoric, and his actions.

Simply put, Mr. Trump appealed to his base by combining entertaining one-liners with promising quick fixes as fast as people brought him problems. His audiences then evolved into a base of supporters who enjoyed his entertaining and outrageous performances, and chose to believe he could help them. And he was certainly helped by the fact that no one else better informed was addressing their problems.

Sometimes it takes a while for audiences to recognize that would-be political leaders are more entertainers than problem-solvers. But eventually the public will begin to see that such people work for applause and will change on a dime. And in time their inconsistencies will be disrupting, and eventually can be frightening.

For example, many of the promises Mr. Trump made during the campaign about healthcare and manufacturing made him sound like a populist Democrat who felt his audiences’ pain. Once in office, however, he instantly switched and sounded more like a conservative Republican who was willing to cut benefits. But then a quick defeat on healthcare had him talking again more like a Democrat.

The bottom line is that Mr. Trump has no basic frame of reference that defines where he is coming from. Repeating the one-liner “Making America Great Again” says nothing about how he will go about improving democratic institutions, or advancing American values, or helping all levels of society share in the American dream.

What’s more, the absence of an intellectual frame of reference, combined with Trump’s daily communication inconsistencies, is already leaving a growing number of people trembling about how he will go about making many of the life and death decisions he inevitably will have to make.

 

When a support base is extremely partisan or narrowly segmented appealing only to it can have serious long-term consequences. The 24/7 media that helped build support doesn’t go away. Over time message content will likely change with new information and evidence, and what works and what doesn’t will reach both the base and the American public at large.

  1. Trump made exaggerated promises to an important group of people who legitimately felt ignored by Washington. He gained their passionate support by over-promising. But what happens when industries that moved away do not come back? What happens when these people are not the ones that get the new jobs when they appear? What happens when Abolishing Obama-care does not result in much better healthcare at prices they can afford? Promising is one thing. Making workable promises is something else.
  2. Ultra-conservative republicans promised their voters and donors in narrowly formed ultra-conservative districts to “repeal and replace” Obama-care. But they grossly underestimated the general public’s response to only offering low-income people very minimal coverage “access.” Most people want better coverage that is affordable for everyone… as promised by President Trump to his base.

In today’s instant media environment appealing to a base is possible in the short-term. But messages about what works and what doesn’t will eventually come through to everyone, and exaggerated or false promises very likely will bring legislative failures.

It’s may be possible to campaign with narrow liberal or conservative ideas, but not to govern with them. Progress on problem-solving requires workable ideas on the table, mutual respect, good faith collaboration, and a willingness to compromise on some details. Implementation problems can be fixed later with experience. This is the way problems get solved in the real world.

Extreme conservative and liberal ideologues will always face the reality that persistent 24/7 media will ultimately reach everyone with messages about what is working and what isn’t. Learning the “what’s workable” lesson sooner rather than later could save a lot of people a lot of pain.