Studying the communication dimensions of leadership has been a strong interest of mine ever since I started years ago working for and consulting with institutional presidents and executives.  There are many lessons. Here are three of the most important:

Lesson One: Presidents set the tone, policy agenda and direction for their institutions or nations simply by what they chose to say… so much so that they even have a “contagious” emotional effect on the behavior others. It is both the opportunity and liability of being a president.

Lesson Two: Never, never bad-mouth your predecessor. Comfortable or not, a new president always stands on the shoulders of those who came before. There are too many influential people still around who supported the others, and not to understand this will almost always prove ruinous.

New presidents obviously need to learn from the mistakes of past presidents. But bad-mouthing them undermines leadership stature, exposes personal ego problems, reveals any lack of knowledge of the institution’s or nation’s history, and significantly diminishes attention on (or reinforces the lack of) a workable plan for the future.

Before I retired I worked closely with several institutional presidents, both at my institution and as a consultant. Each one had to deal with the mistakes of the past. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I learned that for the most part the institution had the right president with the right strengths at the right time. Each president made mistakes, no doubt. But it was far more effective for new presidents to honor past presidents’ contributions then to criticize their mistakes. In this way a new vision and plan could rest on a solid historical foundation while reaching out to everyone, no matter their past loyalties, background, or special interests.

Lesson Three: Don’t pick a fight with the news media. Expressing disappointment about poor coverage is certainly fine, even required. But expressing frustration by relentlessly attacking the media will eventually make any president look weak, think-skinned, dysfunctional, and eventually untrustworthy. Make no mistake. It’s a no-win situation.

What also happens is that the president’s entire staff becomes disorganized trying to respond to daily disjointed attacks and soon find it impossible to advance other far more important initiatives. Like it or not the agenda will always be set by what the  president says that day, and the media will reign in the end simply as a result of the administrative chaos and daily supply of crisis news. “Breaking news” increases readership, broadcast ratings, and media profits. It’s as simple as that.

As we all know the U.S. president did not win the popular election. From a purely communication perspective he won the presidency because of two unlikely situations: He found a large number of legitimately unhappy voters. And his opponent failed to manage an email server crisis, fell into the trap of almost exclusively attacking him, and therefore failed to articulate a plan and vision for the future of her country.

My long experience in communication and media teaches that these hard lessons apply to all top leaders of anything, everywhere. And the lessons most certainly apply right now to everyone currently involved in party politics and government.

We live in a world where experts disagree on most everything and the environment is so cluttered with information that many of us give up trying to understand. In the case of politics many end up voting for a candidate like Mr Trump who sounds like he understands them and promises a better life.

The mess we are in with healthcare is somewhat similar. Experts disagree on what work’s best. And 24/7 news confuses to the extent that we all end up in a “mental fog.”

Topics such as these only confuse most of us: Medicaid extension, Medicaid elimination, private sector-based system, single payer system, premiums vs. deductions, VIP programs, interstate transferable, insurance provider pull-outs, drug costs, tax incentives, lower-income taxes, bankrupt system, and on and on. And now we also are hearing about plans designed in secret, ultra conservatives vs. moderates in conflict, needed amendments, necessary votes to pass, and all this for a program that nobody can understand, and may not want.

The most critical questions remain unanswered: How does all this apply to me? What will I be able afford? Will I lose what I already have?  Were do I go for clear answers? The fact is that while people are choosing sides nobody really knows what they are supporting.

Extreme politics and information clutter have created this confusing and perpetual “mental fog.” With respect to healthcare, it began with political polarization and degenerated into either like and “fix Obamacare,” or declare a crisis and call for “repeal and replace.” Much like in the presidential election, the only choice you really have is to pick the political side you tend to favor, rally around its cause and your legislator, and hope for the best. Or you can drop out in disgust.

Like it or not we are living in a time of  political polarization, big data, information clutter, and mental exhaustion. With respect to healthcare, people simply want an easily affordable and understandable system that covers everyone no matter their illness. Tragically, we are not likely to get it.

The recent tragic shooting at a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game resulted in politicians on both sides agreeing to lower the temperature of their out-of-control angry rhetoric. Many recalled the days when Democrats and Republicans actually socialized, knew each other’s families, developed meaningful friendships, and found ways to work together on legislation.

Turning the temperature down on the rhetoric in Congress is indeed a great idea. But the president must do the same. His behavior and body language with oval office visitors, choice of words in daily tweets, constant bad-mouthing of his predecessor, and strong-man “photo-ops” on foreign visits, all establish an atmosphere which enables and even encourages similar behavior in others.

When news and social media reinforce the drama in political events everything degenerates even more. Eventually pundits begin reporting that the country is disintegrating, and historians remind us of how many great civilizations have totally destroyed themselves.

Partisans always blame the other guy. Republicans began attacking and blocking everything Obama wanted to do, and did so for more than eight years. When “repeal and replace” instead of “we can fix it” became both their strategy and tactic, battles erupted and soon descended into all-out war. And instead of articulating a well thought out plan of action with a vision, the opposition became defensive and lost their way. Many other outsiders went “AWOL” and ran off into “Never-Never Land.” But their absence also became part of the problem.

The natural inclination of the news media is always to enhance the drama. Hostility makes good copy, and conventional wisdom suggests that debating issues is a good thing. It certainly is good television. But the communication reality is that aggressive debating without objective scoring always results in polarizing both debaters and audiences.

Simply put, people hear what they want to hear. A Democrat’s argument only makes a Republican a better Republican. And vice versa. To find our way out of this mess we will need to replace betting on horse races and taking sides in debates with focusing full news media and political attention on finding workable solutions to complex problems.

We desperately need to turn the temperature way down on hostility all across society. Now more than ever each and every politician, government official, journalist, and citizen must play a part in eliminating the wickedness that is tearing us apart… and find specific ways to help save the future of our otherwise values-based country.

A reader recently asked me how public confidence in journalism can be restored. I did not have a ready answer, but promised to reflect on my longtime experience and make some observations.

A compelling article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs argues that Americans are losing confidence in expertise everywhere. Experts are confusing because they disagree with each other. And 24/7 information clutter makes it too hard to sort out the truth. So the result is that a growing number of people just want to find strong sounding leaders they can believe will make their life better. Then, they vote that way and ignore the experts… be they professors, scientists, pundits, or journalists.

Even so, serious journalists remain deeply concerned about the decline of public confidence in their work. To some extent they are indeed victims of this overall changing public attitude about expertise. But they also work for organizations that must be commercially competitive and earn profits. This reality adds additional complications.

In earlier broadcasting days I remember a television production professor of mine pointing to a TV camera and saying, “This is a TV camera. It is used to make programs that deliver audiences to commercials.” At first, news was not seen as a profit center. But as it demonstrated it could become one, “the news” began to change. Producers learned how to attract audiences for commercials that would pay the high cost of news reporting. And they did it by bringing entertainment values into news programming. Gradually they used the power of celebrity and ratcheted-up the pace and drama to make it all more compelling.

But is it possible that by making news more entertaining people now watch it (or read it) mostly for entertainment? Consider that Mr. Trump’s press attacks stimulated a “news war” between the New York Times and the Washington Post and that a colleague told me that he found following it to be quite entertaining. Trump gets his visibility. Television gets viewers. Newspapers get readers. Profits are up. Everyone wins. Except possibly all the serious investigative journalists, and the seriously confused news consumers.

Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Can pressures for more and more news drama be lessened?
  2. Can preferring fashion model look-a-like anchors and pundits be changed?
  3. Can anchors stop aligning their own celebrity status with entertainment and sports celebrities?
  4. Can overall fast-paced, high drama anchoring be slowed down?
  5. Can using the term “breaking news” just to add drama be stopped?
  6. Can promising “new information after the break” (when only the words change) be stopped.
  7. Can legitimate experts be allowed to finish their thoughts instead of constantly cutting them off?
  8. Does the profession have the responsibility to explain exactly why consumers must become their own editors?
  9. Can “live” TV coverage of clearly outrageous, headline-seeking political events be ended?
  10. Can shouting reporter mobs alter their behavior “optics?”
  11. Should both the uses and hazards of “insider news leaks” be explained more clearly in the reporting?
  12. Should media organizations  underwrite and promote “media literacy” education in schools, universities and community groups?
  13. Should news accuracy policy commitments be visibly broadcast and printed?
  14. Should news consumers be asked to submit ideas for earning their confidence… on-line and in ongoing focus groups?

The U.S. constitution protects the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. But this protection did not anticipate today’s “news business,” and its need to be profitable. Some would suggest that expanding public broadcasting and nonprofit news organizations is the answer. But others accurately observe that adequate funding and creeping commercial underwriting influences are also issues in today’s nonprofit world.

Even in an age where faith in educated expertise might be declining, greater public confidence in journalism is absolutely critical to preserving our nation’s democratic future. My conclusion is that both the news consuming public and journalism professionals have shared responsibilities for finding the best way forward.


Three people with three knives and a van are able to able to achieve 24/7 nonstop visibility. Are cable channels just handing terrorist organizations the publicity they seek, or is all this coverage essential information that the public needs to have? This is one of the dilemmas of the “reality television” world we now inhabit.

Cable news has the technology to provide immediate and ongoing coverage, and along with that comes a business model that requires them to use it. So here is the way such coverage unfolds:

Getting there first with the most technical and human resources is an important competitive advantage. Keeping the audience engaged becomes critical. Losing viewers is counterproductive to their purpose. Witnesses in the street are the first available interviews. So early death and causality numbers will come from their speculation and hearsay. These numbers are always wrong, but are reported anyway. Ongoing casualty reports now become an unmentioned “keeping the audience engaged” factor. It will take a while for investigating and political officials to make more accurate statements.

Soon retired FBI and other experts are brought in to review once again the steps that investigators follow to identify potential accomplices. They tell us that investigators go to where the terrorists live, find their family members, locate their friends, identify previous travel and possible training, etc. The audience will likely hear this process described over again by several different retired experts.

Reporters also will describe once again where victims are taken, explaining that several hospitals are always used. As witnesses who were inside the event (or are now in the hospital) can be found, they are also asked to tell their stories in as much emotional detail as they are willing. These tragic human interest stories become the final step in continuous coverage, and potential followup stories later.

Both recent London bridge events are examples of how these events unfold for long periods of time with very little new information reported along the way. Cable channels cover it because they can, and it simply is what they do. It is good reality television. But how much of it is news? And how damaging is it to be giving terrorists the publicity they so desperately crave?

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.


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.