Trump-ing the Language of Leadership
Nowadays everyone seems to be talking about the bilateral race for nomination as the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. Personally, I’m a little tired of the redundancy of the arguments on both sides at this point, but I am intrigued by the language chosen and the delivery styles that are making and breaking campaigns, especially Donald Trump’s.
Love him or hate him (and most people do tend to embrace one extreme opinion or the other,) Donald Trump has stolen the spotlight since announcing his candidacy. Platform stance aside, let’s take a look at some of his communication patterns that made him a force to be reckoned with, and lessons we can learn, if perhaps with a grain (or spoonful?) of salt, about establishing our image and reputation as a leader.
First, Mr. Trump consistently demonstrates unwavering conviction and confidence in his views. Of course, he often takes it to the extreme, and to the best of my knowledge has never once apologized for any comment, even when launching patently personal insults at seemingly everyone who, well, disagrees with him. This is certainly the opposite of another bad habit that many people have, especially women, as I discussed in previous posts, of over-apologizing and diminishing the value of their own contributions and reputation. While he may voluntarily sacrifice diplomacy on a regular basis, what is undeniable is that he believes 100% in the validity, importance and value of his own perspective. And in a world of uncertainty, people find that reassuring.
Second, as part of that confidence, his voice is always clear and declarative in tone. He never falls into the common vocal pitfalls of vocal fry, monotony or up-speak. (And while that is something more commonly associated with young women, men do it just as much, don’t fool yourselves.) There is nothing hesitant or uncertain in the sound of any statement he makes. Granted, all of the candidates have been strong this way; I’m sure many (all?) of them have been explicitly and repeatedly coached on it. When the level of conviction in the voice matches the conviction in the word choice, credibility is reinforced.
Additionally, and this may be an uncommon way to look at it, but to use one of the popular phrases in the current discourse on executive presence, Mr. Trump is always willing to speak truth to power. While you may feel like he is at the top and thus has all the power and nothing to be afraid of, the reality is that he knows the voters have the real power in the end. He is not trying to please everyone by mincing words. He is willing to say what he believes needs to be said even though it may make some people unhappy in the moment, in the hopes of winning others over long-term, for greater ultimate gains. This degree of risk can make others shake in their shoes.
For example, when trying to “manage up” and present information to senior leadership, many people balk at the idea of contradicting the boss in a meeting or presenting financial projections or other news that may not be as positive as they’d like, which runs the risk of being met with angry challenges, public chastisement or worse. But here’s the thing: if you believe that your data is correct, and your job is to present all facts to senior leadership so that they can make informed decisions, then you have to be able to stand strong in these moments, say what you believe to be true, and be willing and able to defend your stance, showing grace under fire. Whether Mr. Trump displays anything that could be categorized as “grace” is perhaps debatable, but you get the point. This ability is widely recognized as a necessary quality in a leader.
Finally, there is absolutely no question that Mr. Trump knows his audience, and follows a key rule of thumb in sales: if his gives them what they want, in return he will get what he wants. This is something most people forget. We go into meetings, presentations and conference calls thinking about how we can make people see things our way, instead of framing things in terms of letting them know that we can (or at least want to) see things from their perspective, and start from that point as common ground.
In fact, outside of those who may genuinely understand and agree with his actual policies, I would argue that he has two primary audiences, and luckily for him he can kill both birds with one verbal stone, giving both exactly what they want while still following his own strategic interests:
The first target audience is the media themselves. He knows what they want: for viewers to tune in and not change the channel or bounce off the page, so he hands them full buckets of drama to chum the waters on a daily basis. Let’s face it, whether or not you think he is a good candidate for president, there is no question that the man makes for great television. For all his money, he hasn’t had to purchase any advertisements because the media voluntarily give him all the airtime he could ever want, for free. And he knows that in this race, airtime is the equivalent of gold bullion.
The other target audience is voters who are disenfranchised with politics-as-usual and, driven at least in part by emotions, are looking for someone to blame. Mr. Trump very smartly knows that people often make big decisions based on emotions, either in conjunction with or in lieu of other empirical data. So he frequently and explicitly identifies new villains, ranging from his individual opponents, to entire nations such as Mexico and China, to the media themselves, for some inherent evil that has befallen the US. His approach gives his target audience a uniquely combined feeling of validation, absolution and/or moral superiority through victimization. He ensures them that they are right.
To accomplish this, he incorporates emotionally charged, subjective language such as, “it was a disaster,” “he was horrible,” “they were unfair,” and “it’s an embarrassment.” Whether or not there is validity to his claims is immaterial here. He masterfully leads people to believe that he is the only person who understands the root cause of their problems, knows who is to blame, and will see that justice is served. It makes the audience feel better about themselves and their future, and who doesn’t like and want to support someone who can make them feel like that?
Ultimately, Mr. Trump has mastered the art of communicating with his target audience in a way that is both authentic to who he is, and simultaneously resonates with them in a way that opens them up to his message and makes them eager to hear more. Whether you are heading a billion-dollar enterprise, leading a team of a dozen, or doing routine inspections or sales calls, these are lessons to learn which, if applied tactfully, are virtually guaranteed to help us all enhance our leadership image in a most positive way.
And for that, Mr. Trump, we thank you… whether or not we vote for you.