What do we want from our leaders? Following the confirmation of Donald Trump’s victory in this US presidential election, The New York Times was one of the first to admit that we probably don’t know anymore. Our pollsters, political analysts, and editors of trusted media all predicted wrong. Data failed to be our oracle and pundits’ prophetic messages fell on enough voters’ deaf ears. Even the glamour of celebrities could not mobilize enough of their congregation across the nation.
For all the round-the-clock social listening, polling, or message testing, to what extent are we actually in touch with our target audiences?
One of Harvard Business Review’s blogs tried to tackle this question from a behavioral science perspective. In the blog, Professor Leslie John pointed out several red flags. First, biased data and modeling. Information gathered from any research is subject to the methodology used in the gathering stage and the models built for the analysis stage. Second, a shared sense of overconfidence among media. This was propelled by constantly pointing out the inconsistencies and erroneous facts in Trump’s statements, and ironically created the opposite effect of convincing the public. Third, contrary to many of the parodies of Trump we saw, his display of dominance and his highly selective disclosure of information actually built trust among many voters.
For someone who makes a living helping organizations build trust and change the attitudes and behaviors of their target audiences, John’s warning on cognitive bias is humbling. How in touch are we (or not) collectively as a profession with the public?
Perhaps it takes a Shakespearean fool to point out the elephant in the room. Actor Tom Walker on his YouTube channel, in the persona of reporter Jonathan Pie, blasted the pundits for failing to hear and understand the public’s desire for change and their demand for authenticity. The lesson learned from Walker’s perspective is that nothing can replace meaningful discussion, not labeling, not insults, not even celebrity endorsement.
How do we progress from here after 18 months of divisive battle? What should we discuss as a public that’s meaningful? I turned to Professor Nancy Koehn’s scholarship on leadership for guidance.
In her Harvard Business Review podcast, Professor Koehn pointed out how important it is for leaders to transcend their personal ambition and commit to a mission that best serves the people they lead. This commitment to service requires a deep sense of humanity, strict emotional discipline, and unwavering courage to name but a few leadership skills. So far, Trump has made bold leadership statements but has yet to demonstrate clarity on his mission and path. His campaign rhetoric, his lack of experience in public office, and his yet to be determined agenda, are causing turbulence.
Even in the past few days after the election, we witnessed protests in various cities, hate crimes against minority groups, and a volatile stock market. If meaningful, candid, and engaging public discussions are what we need to move forward, then we as communication professionals have an ever more important duty to perform in the next four years. We can choose to continue to feed the frenzy or we can help build positive public discourse to guide our global communities through the turbulence ahead.