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Dear Donald, Leadership is Not a Cardboard Cutout

cardboard-leadershipThis past Saturday New York’s attorney general sued Donald Trump for $40 million saying the real estate mogul helped run a phony “Trump University” that promised to make students rich but instead steered them into expensive and mostly useless seminars, and even failed to deliver promised apprenticeships.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says many of the 5,000 students who paid up to $35,000 thought they would at least meet Trump but instead all they got was their picture taken in front of a life-size cardboard cutout picture of The Donald.

A cardboard cutout!? This is every leadership coach and trainer’s worst nightmare.  Leadership 101!

We were discussing this with the team at New Directions, and yes, having a laugh at The Donald’s expense (I’m sure he can afford it).  What was he attempting to do?  Did he really think a cardboard cutout would suffice? What was this all about?  We came to the conclusion that it might have been his way of engaging – being emotionally involved or committed.

As leaders (whether it be in running a university, managing a brand, or like most of us, running a team, department or organization), we know that engaging with our followers is crucial to our leadership.  It can be the defining factor between great leadership and everything else. And yet, as The Donald proved, “engagement” is a very slippery slope.

Engagement as a leader means you are present. This doesn’t only mean physically (no cardboard cutouts, please), but present in mind and in the spirit of the task or relationship.  It also means being present in the way we communicate, solve problems and team with others to build an ecosystem that invites great talent in and retains the commitment of followers.

Interestingly in a beehive the queen leader has what we call the P-Factors which is part of her natural pheromone system.  One of the P-Factors is the Footprint Factor in which the queen continually walks around the hive and over the honeycomb spreading her pheromone which lets the worker bees know she’s there, she is present, that the hive is safe and that she cares for them.

The new generation of workers coming into the workplace is going to require even more personal engagement and transparency.  The notion that a leader would promise one thing and offer something completely different will not be tolerated by this generation.  It is some of the reason we see the active disengagement from this younger generation. Once they figured out how organizations actually operated and what a leader was actually attempting to do or say or be, young workers are leaving those companies.

Recent Gallup research shows that only 36% of managers and executives were engaged last year – meaning they are deeply involved in and enthusiastic about their work and actively contributing to their organization. Yikes!

There is a proven strong relationship between employees’ workplace engagement and their respective companies’ overall performance. Gallup’s national engagement data for the past four years of only one in three workers engaged in their jobs means businesses, organizations and leaders of those organizations, as a whole, are not maximizing their workforces.

If we were to sit down with the Donald and do some executive coaching on engagement here’s what we might say:

1. Work on setting false expectations and not living up to what you promised – under promise and over deliver.

2. Watch out for fake engagement – people see through it.  Don’t bill it as one thing and then make it something else that it was never intended to be.

3. Stop with the fake leadership – put around you some devil advocates, and people smarter than you that won’t say ‘yes’ too easily. Be ready to listen to feedback and change.


What do you think?  Is the era of cardboard leadership over?  Do you see this new workforce expecting and needing different levels of engagement?

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An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

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