By Daena Giardella
“Sensemaking,” one of the four leadership capabilities, is the ability to make sense of what is happening in the greater marketplace and discern emerging changes and patterns. In the era of President Trump, business leaders and CEOs need to shift their sensemaking skills into high gear. Along with that, they may have to exercise Improvisational Leadership skills in the Trump universe.
CEOs, like the rest of the country, are faced with the challenge of making sense of Trump’s policies and actions, but his favorite method of communication – Twitter – sows chaos not clarity. Typically, when CEOs or leaders want to convey an important message, they talk to key stakeholders, convene a meeting, or give a nuanced speech to build relationships and foster buy-in with targeted audiences. A tweet has no eye contact, nod, smile, or handshake. A tweet’s brevity can foster confusion because it has no context.
Tweets by the president singling out specific companies with thumbs up or down can rattle markets, precipitate boycotts, unnerve CEOs and boards, and affect stock prices – if however briefly.But even if they dislike Trump’s tweets, many business leaders are encouraged by the president’s attitude about rolling back regulations; his comments about reducing taxes are music to their ears. However, a reflexive decision to placate or ingratiate oneself to any powerful figure, even the President, may prove to be a big mistake. Trump may be gone in four years, or even sooner, but your customer and client base will be with you for decades.
Trump may, for example, brag about clamping down on the EPA and changing auto emission rules, but we have already made a paradigm shift to clean energy and improved emissions standards. People enjoy driving hybrid cars; many remember what it was like when cities were choking in smog and the Charles River was synonymous with dirty water. The specter of lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, still hovers. So focus on your own stakeholders and pay attention to your real audience.
Improvisational Leadership skills may be required. When Trump yells, CEOs may have to speak softly. When he pushes, they may have to act like an aikido master to adroitly sidestep a punch. When he steps over the line, they may need to stand up. General Electric as well as Exxon Mobil have pushed back against Trump’s executive order aimed at gutting Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Similarly Levi Straus, Starbucks, Ford Motor, Coca Cola, and Nike joined numerous tech companies opposing the travel ban.
Some observers say that Trump is a great improviser because he makes it up as he goes along. This is not accurate. The hallmark of a great improviser is the “Yes, And” mindset, in which rule number one is to make the other parties look good; this builds strong relationships, encourages collaboration, and moves the action forward. Trump is the guy who says, “No,” and then belittles anyone who disagrees with him. He throws chaos into the moment with distractions and promotes warring factions. In improvisational terms, Trump is a classic “blocker,” the guy who shuts down the process. He tosses out bombs. He steals the stage. He hogs the spotlight. He doesn’t listen.