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Are There Leadership Lessons CEOs can Learn from President Trump?

Like most everything President Trump does, his leadership style is the subject of violent debate. According to executive coach Scott Eblin, the early morning tweet storms, the blame-casting when things go awry and the “you’re either with me or against me” threats that the President engages in on a regular basis are all markers of high negative energy. His default move is to go high negative. That’s effective some of the time, but not all the time, states Eblin.

To be effective as a leader, you need to shift away from doing or saying whatever pops into your head at the moment to thoughtfully and strategically considering your overall goals. When you have your strategic goals clearly in mind, you’re in a much better position to make smart choices about the optimal mix of resonant and dissonant leadership styles that will help you get there. Entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is highly critical of Trump’s leadership style, saying it is calculated not to get people to go along with his ideas. But Cuban was highly critical of Trump even before the campaign.

Ted Bililies, managing partner with AlixPartners, an expert on leadership and organization who helps CEOs and investors solve their toughest people and organizational problems, and advisor to the Chief Executive of the Year selection committee, sees Trump as a classic disrupter, calling him ‘the disrupter-in-chief’. “From time-to-time, disrupters are necessary. The electorate evidently felt since we have had disrupters in business, it’s time to have a disrupter in government.”

The learning for CEOs, he feels, is to gauge whether one’s company or industry requires such a figure. What about all the tweeting? “If by tweeting a leader can reach thousands of employees or customers directly, circumstances may justify it. It’s one of many instruments in a leader’s toolbox,” adds Bililies. “Whether one uses or misuses it is another question entirely.”

“If by tweeting a leader can reach thousands of employees or customers directly, circumstances may justify it. Whether one uses or misuses it is another question entirely.”

Politics aside, it’s interesting to consider if this approach is going to work over the long run. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of leadership programs as well as the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management for the Yale School of Management, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that Trump has done a great job at not surrounding himself with a team of “shrinking violets.” In fact, his team consists of “very strong people,” none of whom are deceptive, although some aren’t necessarily popular choices. Sonnenfeld continued that Trump’s inner circle reveals he is doing exactly what he pledged to do during the campaign trail—hiring non-traditional politicians with impeccable business backgrounds to get the job done more efficiently compared to career politicians.

Because Trump was a successful businessman in real estate, it begs the question is there something about CEOs, or more particularly entrepreneurs that favor or inhibit them in being effective in government and politics? On balance, former CEOs have a mixed record as government leaders. Rick Scott, former CEO of HCA/Columbia, ran for governor of Florida successfully in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. Like Trump, whom he supported, he is also a frequent tweeter, but uncontroversially so. Since December 2010, Florida has created over 1,355,700 private sector jobs and the state’s unemployment rate continues to drop.

Jimmy Carter and George Bush, both businessmen, are not considered great presidents. Donald Rumsfeld successfully ran G.D. Searle, the pharma giant, and held several cabinet posts under two presidents. By all accounts a brilliant executive, Robert MacNamara, a former “whiz kid” and president of Ford made a name for himself as JFK’s and Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary, but did not cover himself in glory during the Vietnam War. Conversely Harry Truman, who is generally regarded as an effective president, was a failed haberdasher.

Donald Trump has essentially operated his own family business, not a major public company with a strong board and vocal shareholders. He’s not used to the kind of pushback he has experienced. If he can’t bring his own party together, he says he’ll go it alone.Most CEOs who answer to a board of directors have guard rails that regulate their behavior to some degree.

Most observers dismiss Trumps tweets as the ravings of a narcissist, but Barbara Bickart, associate professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and Martin Nisenholtz a professor of the practice of digital communications at Boston University’s College of Communications, and former CEO of New York Times Digital, see it differently. Trump, they argue in Harvard Business Review, is an expert in “big seed” marketing which has advantages over viral marketing.

“A message can spread faster and more systematically if it is “seeded” among many people. This differs sharply from the viral approach, which attempts to create an “epidemic” of interest through a few targeted influencers, who spread a message among the people to whom they are connected. If those connections fail to pass on the message, it soon peters out. Big-seed marketing is more reliable than designing content that mimics the qualities of cat videos in the hope of going viral. Companies like BuzzFeed have used the big-seed model to create successful news websites and advertising businesses.”

Twitter’s 140-character limit tends to generate messages that are ripe for misquoting. Trump doesn’t have to explain details or elaborate on context, and this allows multiple interpretations of the message. The format invites controversy, encouraging media pickup and growing the audience in kind. Business leaders should consider how they could make their messages provocative to draw attention and encourage discussion far beyond the social media platforms on which the message was originally posted. Deciding how far to go, though, means carefully weighing the risks against the rewards.


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