Hi, I’m Ian McClean. I’m the founder of Flow Group and GreenLine Conversations. And this podcast has grown out of the chaos that’s been thrust upon us. During the podcast, I’m going to try and share with you the best of 25 years of helping corporate organizations deal and cope with change. So, as you’re out there, busy making sense of it all, trying to cope, and maybe, in some cases, trying to rebuild your organizations, I’m hoping that some of this can be of some assistance. We’ll keep it deliberately short, because I know you’re busy. Let’s dive in.
After the blazing Inferno of the US presidential elections and the results, we are now left to settle with the smouldering embers. What are the lessons that we can take from the Trump legacy after four years? A legacy that saw us go from the “Yes, we can” era to, four years later, the “Divided States of America”.
As an organization, the Flow Group gets asked frequently to come and work with a client, but it’s very, very rare that we get asked to work with a client that’s already doing well. After all, you never go and visit the doctor when you’re feeling okay. Typically, we get asked to intervene whenever there’s a problem. And whenever there’s a problem, we sit with the client. They typically describe to us the symptoms.
Like any good doctor, we have to investigate and not just stop with the symptoms but try to dig deeper to understand what the underlying causes are around the whole of the landscape that’s affecting the team or the organization.
And the one thing that we’ve discovered as a rule of thumb, there are many, many factors that influence the performance or the function of the team or the enterprise. But above all else, the number one influencing factor is the role of the leader. The leader’s impact can influence positively or negatively along the continuum of functionality. And it can either on the upper end, create inspiration and productivity all the way down to the lower end, which creates toxicity and dysfunction.
Most leaders don’t set out to do a bad job, but all leaders grossly underestimate their influence and impact. And I can say that without fear of contradiction. After all, who’s going to contradict a soliloquy on a podcast?
And it’s very reasonable, when you think about it, to understand why leaders underestimate their impact. Because, very simply, you, as a leader, and any other leader, are just being yourself, getting through the day, doing the best that you can with what you’ve got to make things as well as you can make them. And that’s the only thing that you consider. You’re just being you.
Other people don’t see you as just being you. Because those who report to you or are influenced directly by you, you represent something completely different to them. You represent information they don’t have. Knowledge they don’t have access to. Contacts and access to people. And most importantly, the power.
The power to influence things in their lives, their careers, their career paths, their grades, their salaries, the work or the projects that they get allocated. So, therefore, people pay far more attention to you than you are ever aware of. You shouldn’t worry about what your people are up to. You should actually worry that they’re watching you. And this scrutiny is amplified a thousandfold during times of crisis and uncertainty.
Let me give you an example. In our headquarters office, in Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland. In the boardroom, there are six chairs. Five are blue, and one is orange. Typically, when I go into the board room, I sit in the orange chair. I noticed over time that when other people go into the boardroom, even when I’m not there, nobody sits in the orange chair. I began to hear people refer to the orange chair as “Ian’s chair”.
At a weekly meeting, I brought up the idea of the chair, and I just laid to rest any notion that this was my chair or that I had unique access to it. And I stated that anytime anybody was in there, the orange chair was open to anybody. It’s not just my chair. In spite of the fact that people nodded, in spite of the fact that I’d communicated, I’ve noticed subsequently that still, to this day, nobody sits in the orange chair.
We underestimate our impact. Non-verbally, even more than verbally.
As the leader of your enterprise, you are not just the CEO. You are the CCO, which is the Chief Culture Officer. The culture is the environment that you have around you. And we all have one. Whether we know it or not, whether we voted for it or not. It’s a direct consequence of the single biggest influence, which is you as a leader.
The easiest way to describe culture from a leadership perspective is that culture is made up of the things that you promote, but not just what you promote, also what you permit. It’s not enough that Trump doesn’t need to advocate for white supremacy for it to take hold and take root. Simply not denouncing it is enough to legitimize and embolden the behaviour.
So, for you as a leader, the next time you see that behaviour that doesn’t fit with your idea of what should be, and you choose not to act, by choosing not to act, you are permitting it. And you were actually infusing the culture of the team with the undesirable practice. So that person that arrives consistently five minutes late for the meeting, 10 minutes late for the meeting, by not tackling that behaviour, you’re actually permitting it. And it becomes legitimized in the eyes of others.
Trump’s leadership style. If we look at it, nobody’s going to get any prizes for saying it was autocratic. But if you get specific with what that’s made up of, the constituent parts are three things. He imposed his will on others without any consultation. He didn’t listen, so there was no room for dissent. And he had the inalienable belief that “I’m right”, meaning that his way was the only way.
The law of cause and effect is absolutely true and critical when it comes to leadership. So, as a result of that style with those characteristics, the impact that it had on those around him was it created a sense where people were fearful, and they devoted and dedicated all of their energy into either self-promotion, where they were jockeying for position amongst their peers to curry favour with their leader, or self-protection. And this energy of the followers dedicated into self-promotion or self-protection came at the expense of what is actually good for the whole, for the enterprise, or for the country.
The implication of this and the knock-on effect on society was it created a society of ugliness. A society that became, or has become, polarized, angry, and full of fear and hate. This has manifested itself in the fact of the highest on-record level of gun sales that have taken place in the US since records began. In fact, 17 million guns were sold up until the end of September. Which is higher than any other full year in history. Those who tout for Trump, and apologists for Trump, point to, commonly, the economy. And there are two observations that I have for this.
And the first observation I have is very often, this is a sense, or a case of misattribution where the results being good is attributed to the autocratic style of the leader. Very often, the results are created in spite of the autocratic nature of the leadership rather than because of the style.
The second observation is that it is very possible through dictatorial, autonomous, heavy-handed leadership to create results and get very positive results, particularly in an environment where shareholder value is key and quality reporting is king.
The one thing that’s absolutely certain about this is that it is not sustainable. Over a period of time, it will come back and reverse itself and have negative consequences that are felt further down the line.
Final summary, the detective novel trope or cliche of “Cherchez la femme”, which is a trope that dates back to the detective novels of Alexander Duma during the 19th century, was based on the idea that to solve any mystery, all you needed to do was find the femme fatale. The lady in the piece.
In this case, if we want to get to the root of what it is, is creating the result on the outside. If we want to understand what the cause is that is producing the effect, then all we simply need to do is “Cherchez le Chef”. Find the leader.
Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected.