Redefining the norm

Posted by: John Deffenbaugh - Posted on:

The NHS Leadership Academy works with a world-class expert faculty of global business leaders, educators and practitioners. Our programme participants are offered unique opportunities to learn from and talk with each of them. Here, John Deffenbaugh, faculty member, discusses leadership lessons from a hot topic in the US.


President Trump is making an impact in his first weeks in office. He is doing just what he said he would do.  His actions reach well beyond America, and many outside the US, and the majority inside still ask of those who voted for him, “How could you”?  I think it’s more important to ask, “Why did you”?  There are many meaningful lessons for leadership in Trump’s triumph, but it is first necessary to understand “why”.

Most Brits when they visit the US will venture to places like Florida, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas.  These places are not truly representative of America, as William Least Heat Moon wrote about in Blue Highways. The real America lies between the mountain ranges just inside the east and west coasts – between the Allegheny and Sierra Nevada mountains.  This vast hinterland of over 2,500 miles contains the Americans who gave Trump his Electoral College majority.  They live in what pundits derisively call “flyover” America.

I grew up, went to high school and college, and fought forest fires in this hinterland.  I can understand why these Americans voted for Trump. It is easy to stereotype Trump voters, but the stats show that they are largely older white males, of high school education, and have been significantly impacted by globalisation.  Some would have voted for Trump along party lines, but many working class Democrats switched from Obama to Trump, as the NY Times’ election analysis graphically illustrates.

Leaving aside Republicans who voted for Trump because he was their candidate (and we had one in our family), the real question is why did swing voters opt for Trump? There are three inter-related reasons.  First is the insularity of Americans in this vast hinterland; many are not well informed. To be frank, they don’t know much about what happens beyond American borders.   There is a lack of curiosity in this hinterland, which correlates with the low number of passport holders – they generally don’t travel abroad.

Second is the message that resonated with these Americans.  The middle classes in America used to comprise workers on the assembly lines that turned out cars and other manufactured products.  These jobs have gone to Mexico and China, and won’t be coming back.  Incomes are stagnant and have been reducing for many years.  Yet, as the historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “America is the only country in the world that thinks it was born perfect but still strives for self-improvement”. Trump’s dystopian view of America painted an opportunity for improvement, which resonated with these voters.

Third was the competition, Hillary Clinton. Trump faced a weak candidate who could not respond to his portrayal of her as a criminal – “Lock her up” was the chant.  Liberals criticised his misogyny, sexism and bullying, but his supporters, and swing voters, overlooked this.  This framing gave some voters a reason to go from Clinton rather than to Trump.  As my nephew’s sister-in-law stated emphatically when I asked why she voted for Trump: “Hillary’s a criminal”.  Really?

So what does this tell us about leadership? First, framing. Trump’s framing of the US to be like Gotham City provided the foundation for him to claim that he, and he alone, could “Make America Great Again”. The irony is not lost in the contrast with Obama’s framing of Hope eight years ago.  Daily we hear how this hero leader will single-handedly solve problems.  Americans like their hero leaders.  This dystopian framing of the problem and Trump’s hero solution will solidify short term support.  It is not, however, a viable model for health and care leaders who seek sustainability.  History is littered with heroes whose hubris has caught up with them.

Second, honesty.  We are now in the age of “alternative facts”, legitimised by the White House.  Truth eventually prevails, and the gutsy thing to do is start with it.  It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who stated, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts”.  It is tough to challenge those in authority with the truth, since leaders can too easily gather a cadre of yes-people around them, which helps to deflect the truth.  As whistle-blowers demonstrate, this wall of protection from truth is very difficult to penetrate.  Leaders can do themselves a service by being open to a wide range of views.  The press in the US is now playing catch up, having slept through the primary and election campaigns. Watch the fireworks as they chase the truth.

Finally, respect.  We need to get in the shoes of those we disagree with. Ok, some chasms of disagreement will never be spanned, but many folk are open to debate and persuasion. Clinton’s use of “deplorables” to describe Trump voters was stupid, and did not show them respect.  It cost her dearly among swing voters who bought into Trump’s framing – both dystopian America and Hillary the criminal.  As a leader you may disagree with an opinion, but respect it, and move to influence and change it, rather than dismiss it.

Churchill is back in the Oval Office, and I hope he is right: “Americans always do the right thing after they have exhausted every other alternative”.  Let’s not redefine the norm because of what we see now.

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