Donald Trump: Three Leadership Lessons from the Republican Presidential Candidate

donald trumpAuthor’s Note: This article is not an endorsement of Donald Trump, nor does it condone, justify, or defend anything he has said or done. The leadership tactics we will discuss are proven to be effective in persuading others and bolstering influence. Whether these skills are used for positive purposes is up to you.

As today marks the beginning of the 2016 Republican National Convention, it seems fitting to discuss the projected GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Whether or not you like him, we can all agree that Trump’s unlikely ascent in this race did not happen by accident. Trump’s masterful display of a few simple leadership techniques has resulted in a loyal fan base and unrelenting media coverage. Here are three such techniques that can benefit each of us.

Use Words That Sell Your Idea…and Repeat Them Often

One tactic Trump regularly practices is repetition of particular words. As listed in the Trump University Playbook, the most persuasive words that should be used when selling include: you, free, money, guarantee, and results. To show Trump’s frequency in using these words, a New York Times study of every Trump rally, speech, interview and news conference over a one-week period found “he has a particular habit of saying ‘you’ and ‘we’.”

We have to be more vigilant. We have to be much tougher. We have to be much smarter…

As for the other persuasive words listed above, he commonly makes such statements as:

  • “I have a lot of money.”
  • “I know a way that will absolutely guarantee
  • “I get results, believe me.”

The repetition of key words and phrases promotes clarity, but can also have an affect on a subconscious level. Often called supraliminal messaging, there is mounting evidence regarding information that is not consciously perceived and it’s downstream effect on our thought processes, decision making, and perception. Apparently, when words are regularly repeated, they can get lodged in the subconscious mind as expressing a real situation. The mind then tries to align the words with reality where they are more likely to be accepted and can block out contradictory thoughts.

In short, figure out the ideas that you are trying to communicate, condense them into a word or short phrase, and inject them into as many exchanges as you can.

Focus on Your Vocal Presence

As much as the words you say matter, how you say them may have a greater impact. A study by Rosario Signorello, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, and his colleague Nari Rhee examined the speaking strategies of politicians and its influence on voters. Consider a recent speech by Trump:

By the way, I think I’m going to win the Hispanic vote. [Then loudly and emphatically] Do you know in the state of Nevada I win with Hispanics?!” [Then softly again] They know I’m going to bring jobs in. They know I’m going to take jobs away from Mexico and China and all these places.

Signorello and Rhee found that speakers like Trump who utilize a wide vocal variation can impact how they are perceived. By increasing his pitch and volume, Trump is more likely to be seen as dominant. Hilary Clinton tends to go the opposite way by lowering her pitch and volume throughout the speech. She ends on a calm note so as to be seen as confident and commanding. The Italian politician Umberto Bossi, who suffered a stroke that impaired his speech, found that pre-stroke, people thought of him as an authoritarian, in part due to his wide-ranging pitch. Post-stroke, his pitch flattened out and he was seen as more benevolent.

Before your next presentation, consider the message and image you are trying to get across. Then, modulate your voice over the course of the speech. By varying your pitch and volume, you will not only lead the audience, but you’ll also keep them engaged in what you have to say.

Assign an Enemy

As leaders, we are aware that to be successful, our company and personal brands must stand for something. One way to do this is to distinguish what you stand against. Trump does this very well. He has expressed strong views opposing immigration, religious groups, Barak Obama, news reporters, and his prior GOP opponents.

Exploiting the “enemy” is not a new phenomenon in political campaigning. Since long before the founding of the United States, candidates and lawmakers have used potentially threats to further their agenda. Marketing expert Adam Morgan calls this creating a “fake monster” where a leader rallies the team to unite against the monster and save the village.

Articulating what you are against does not have to be fear-based or manipulative. The advertising agency StrawberryFrog launched a successful oppositional campaign for a smart car based upon their refusal to accept over-consumption and excess. And in its infancy, Apple’s brand was centered on anti-conformity and anti-Big Brother.

However it is used, by defining what you are against, you are also defining what you believe. You can speak out against the status quo or defend tradition. You can focus on a known adversary or create an imminent menace. Just ensure that your antagonist is aligned with your organization’s principles and culture.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, I think Mr. Trump’s more aggressive tactics may be one attempt at trying to assert some level of control in a situation where people feel scared and a loss of control — as a means of helping them to feel safer. The dilemma then becomes whether supporting these more extreme policies justifies the ends — particularly in terms of how it changes us as a society. — Samuel Justin Sinclair, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of The Psychology of Terrorism Fears

Donald Trump is running a successful campaign—you don’t need to agree with his ideology, actions, and/or personality to admit this. Instead of relying on such typical traits as experience or sophistication, Trump is prevailing through his use of expressive jargon, compelling speaking skills, and a crowd-resonating message. If you support him, these techniques are working. If you don’t, sharpen your skills to help defeat him.

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