The news was filled this week with stories about President Trump’s “unorthodox” management style. From tweeting his thoughts on replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to tweeting his multiple positions on healthcare law changes, to hiring a new communications director who lets loose with expletive-laden rants, people have been left questioning what sort of leadership style President Trump is trying to display.

Donald Trump promised to be a “disruptive leader”

Donald Trump ran for office as an outsider who pledged to disrupt Washington politics.  This was a message well received by many people.  They felt that “business as usual” in national politics was not serving them well, so they wanted change.  To them a disruptor could find a way to steer national politics back onto a course that was more aligned with the conservative middle Americans.  These voters felt that a businessman entrepreneur just might be the kind of leader who could disrupt the status quo in order to get something done for them.

Unfortunately, things have not worked out that way.  And largely this can be traced to the leadership style of President Trump.  Rather than a dedicated disruptor, ready to implement change, President Trump has proven to be a chaos generator that has stymied progress on pretty nearly all issues.  Disruptions can lead to positive change.  Chaos leads to stagnation and degradation as the system searches for homeostasis and a path forward.

From early age, we are taught not to be disruptive.  Disrupting someone during school, religious ceremonies, entertainment events leads to distractions and an inability to remain focused on the goal.  Thus, we are mostly taught to listen, learn and do what we’re told.  However, we also recognize there is a time to be disruptive, because the act of intervening in the process at times can lead to far more positive outcomes than maintaining the course.

But it takes good judgement, and reasoned action, to be a positive disruptive influence.  If you are in a crowded theater and you recognize a blaze it is time to disrupt the stage presentation.  But you have a choice.  If you jump up and yell “fire” you will create chaos.  Everyone suddenly realizes a problem, but with no idea how to deal with it a thousand different solutions emerge simultaneously.  Everyone starts looking out for their own interest, and they trample those around them in an effort to implement their own plans.  Many people get hurt, and frequently the goal of saving everyone by disrupting the presentation is lost in carnage created by the bad disruption leading to chaos.

What is successful disruptive leadership?

So, if you sense a pending fire you are far smarter to develop a plan, such as activating the evacuation notices and opening the exits, prior to making an alert.  And then, instead of yelling “fire” you say to folks “an issue has developed, please make your way down the evacuation routes to the open exits while we deal with the situation.  Please remain calm so everyone can exit safely.”  Your disruption can lead to successful outcome, rather than chaos.

I’ve spent over 20 years focusing on how disruptions can lead to positive change.  And it is clear that with disruptive innovations, and disruptive business models, their success relies on leaders that understand how to implement disruptions effectively.  Leadership matters.

Disruptive leaders think very hard about their desired outcomes, and they go to great lengths to describe what those future, better outcomes will look like.  They then create a plan of action before they do anything.  While the innovation might well be known, they are very, very careful to think through how that innovation will be adopted, then nurtured to gain acceptance and hopefully become mainstream.  These leaders are very careful about their language choices, and where they communicate, in order to encourage people to accept their vision and join with their plan.  They seek adoption rather than confrontation, and they discuss the desired outcomes rather than the disruption itself.  They gain trust and build a consensus for change, and then they systematically roll out their plan, which they adjust as necessary to meet unexpected market conditions.  They gradually move people along the implementation route by relentlessly focusing on the better outcome and reducing the fear inherent in accepting the disruption.

Five ways Donald Trump fails as a successful disruptive leader:

  1. The President has not portrayed a superior outcome which he can use to rally people to his viewpoint.  Despite talking about “making America great again” there is no picture of what that looks like.  What is this future “great” America he envisions and wants us to buy into?  What are the poor outcomes of today that he will greatly improve, leading to vastly superior future outcomes?  Without a clear description of the future, it is hard to gain supporters.  For example, will changes in health care improve care?  Lower the cost? What are the benefits, the better outcomes, of change?  What is the benefit of replacing the sitting attorney general?
  2. The President has not laid out his plan for bringing people on board to his future. Look at the recent effort to implement new health care legislation. At times the President has said there is a need to repeal current legislation and replace it, but he has offered no description of what the replacement should look like.  At other times he has said to repeal current legislation, but he has offered no insight into how that would lead to better outcomes than the current legislation provides.  At yet other times he has said to do nothing, and he expressed his hope that current legislation would fail even though he admitted this would lead to an outcome far worse than the status quo.  By not creating a plan, and bringing people on board to his plan, he has created chaos in the legislative process.
  3. President’s Trumps messages are built on negative language, not positive language about the future. His messages are long on how some person or current situation is weak, rather than explaining what a strong future would look like. He frequently attacks his predecessor, or his former electoral opponent, but does little to say what is good about his Presidency or recommendations or what he is specifically going to do that will create better outcomes.  He frequently talks about firing people in his administration, but talks little about the specifics of what good work people in his administration are doing.  These language choices are exclusive, not inclusive, and they create chaos among those who work in his administration, and members of Congress.  Instead of understanding the President’s goals and objectives people are wondering “what will he say next?”  And by appointing a communications director who uses outrageous, unacceptable and incendiary language he further exacerbates the problem of everyone losing any insight to his message because we are stunned and amazed at the choice of language.
  4. President Trump has the ability to communicate from the most Presidential locations. He can provide TV, radio and internet addresses from the oval office, or the White House platform. He can invite media in for press conferences or interviews to discuss his goals and ambitions, plans and pending decisions.  Or he can make himself, or his staff, available for press interviews.  And while he does some of this, we all spend every day wondering what Tweet he will send over the Twitter social network next.  Several million people use Twitter. It is for social exchange.  For the President to announce policy positions (such as banning transgenders from military service) or evaluations of key subordinates (such as referring to the attorney general as weak) or military policy (such as opining on the potential retribution toward North Korea) via Twitter belies the nature of the office and his role.  His selection of communication venues only serves to make his comments less valuable, rather than more important.
  5. President Trump neither remains consistent in his communications, nor does he exert loyalty. Changes on health care and denouncing his own staff does not create trust. How are people in the legislature, regulatory agencies or military going to become advocates for his goals when they don’t know if he can be trusted to support their actions, or support them as employees?  If you want people to take a different course of action, to let go of the status quo, they have to trust you.  Disruptive leaders time and again must state their positions with clarity and demonstrate support for those who do their best to promote the disruptive agenda.  They battle fear of the future with clarity around their support for future outcomes those who help describe how the future will be better.

There are times for disruptive leadership.  Status quo models become outdated, and outcomes decline as a result.  Change offers the opportunity for better outcomes, and helping people migrate to new innovations helps them toward a better future.  But implementing innovation and change requires skill at being a disruptive leader.  If the process is bungled, you can look like the guy who started a deadly rampage by yelling “fire” when a more reasoned approach would have prevailed.  If you don’t follow the best practices of disruptive leadership, you will create chaos.