Let’s start here: I think it’s an abomination that Donald Trump is a legitimate political candidate for president. There is very little that he has said or done that I agree with. But if you step back, you can’t deny that he has exceeded expectations, drawn tremendous passion for his candidacy and been highly effective in countering predictions of self-destruction. So what can we learn from his approach to the Republican nomination?
- Be authentic: Perhaps the number 1 reason Trump voters are attracted to him is that he feels unfiltered. No reasonable Republican political adviser would advise him to attack George W. Bush in the state of South Carolina (where Bush is enormously popular) or boast about his billions of dollars. In a political environment with so much spin, people value authenticity. And Donald Trump just comes across as being willing to “tell it like it is”, with no sacred cows that he is not willing to take on. Authenticity may be among the most important aspects of leadership. The team may not always agree with you, but they respect authentic leadership and transparency. At BloomReach, we’ve always believed in truth as a core value; it’s at the core of authenticity.
- People love a winner and a battle: We will destroy the other candidates. We are going to win the nomination. We are going to win on trade again. We are going to win with our military. We are going to win against Russia or China. We are going to win against corporate interests. The Trump candidacy is built on winning. And winning works. It works in the market and it works in leadership. It’s important to convey confidence that the team is winning and that victory is inevitable. While I’m sure Trump, like all leaders, has moments of self-doubt, he doesn’t convey them. If the leader doesn’t think they will win, why should anyone else? There are bogeymen everywhere in the Trump candidacy – Fox News, the Pope, his political opponents, Mexicans, Russians, ISIS. Enemies can be tremendously galvanizing. It’s a proven tactic in business – Oracle vs. SAP vs. Salesforce, Google vs. Microsoft vs. Apple, Facebook vs. MySpace. Battles draw attention, focus the mind and force us all to take sides.
- There is no such thing as bad PR: Press coverage of the Donald Trump candidacy has been unprecedented. His statements are so bombastic that the press (and his adversaries) have no choice but to report on it and comment on it. What does that do? It brings him free media coverage. It makes him the best interview on television. It also, as they say in politics, sucks all of the oxygen out of the room. We can learn a lot from that approach. In a world with a lot of noise, breaking through is hard and many businesses can benefit from a more aggressive PR strategy simply to draw attention to themselves and away from their adversaries.
- Outcomes, not details: Much of what bothers people about Trump’s answers to questions is that he consistently ignores questions of “how?” He sticks to outcomes. We will build a wall on the border and Mexico will pay for it. How will we convince Mexico to pay for it? Not relevant. We will defeat ISIS. How? No answer. We will create the largest number of jobs in the economic history of the country. How? No details. But here’s what we miss: Voters are ultimately electing leaders, not policies. And most teams don’t see more detail as greater leadership. The details are there to provide confidence in a strategy, and ultimately to validate the leader’s plan. But just as so many political leaders are so focused on policy proposals, many business leaders are focused on strategy details. We need to remember that too many prosaic details don’t necessarily inspire confidence in great outcomes.
- Believable irrationality can work: One of the underlying assumptions of the Trump candidacy is that he will be a better negotiator than anyone else – with Putin, on trade, with China and with anyone else. Here’s the believable part of that. Negotiating with an irrational leader is pretty hard. How do you negotiate with the leader of North Korea when he may actually use a nuclear weapon? Does anyone doubt that Donald Trump might actually be insane enough to threaten our relationship with Mexico or bomb the Middle East? If he’s willing to say the many irrational things he does, maybe he is actually crazy enough to do those things. And that probably puts him in a good negotiating position. Business leaders can learn from that. There are times where a little bit of irrational intransigence can benefit your company’s negotiating position. Perhaps you’re negotiating a tough contract with an employee or a customer and you’re down to a final negotiating point, even a small one. Try just completely walking away from the deal when your counterparty believes you’re close. Your deal might just improve materially.
There is no doubt that the Trump candidacy has challenged the core values and assumptions of so many of us. I’m embarrassed for our country that he is a legitimate candidate. But even I can learn from an insane man.
Image from Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore licensed under CC by 2.0