Adaptive leadership lessons for Trump and advertising

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The moment we think we have nothing more to learn is the point at which failure looms large, warns Oliver UK's CEO.

You don’t need to be keeping tabs to know that a shocking number of top level players have left or been fired from the Donald Trump’s White House team. The latest, much-reported departure comes in the form of Anthony Scaramucci – and you could bet your house that he won’t be the last.

Clearly, Trump’s management style – narcissistic and lacking in empathy – is something that you could argue is endemic in our own corner of the universe, characterised as it is by big personalities with big egos.

Just like Trump, adland is clearly in the throes of dealing with disruption not only in the ways it communicates with consumers, but also in the way it does business, both with regard to our clients and their missions, as well as our people. Arguably, if we’re to make an opportunity from disruption, and do it better than Trump is currently doing, the right leadership is an essential component. 

Gone are the days where the men (and it generally has been men) whose names are above the door can lead by dictat. Business has changed, and as I’ve learned in my own role, we must too. We need new tools and techniques that enable us and our people to face a fast-moving landscape, which empowers and enables us to build a culture of readiness and just as importantly, commitment. In a nutshell, successful leaders today are adaptive leaders.

As well as the usual leadership trio of strategy/action/results, today’s adaptive leaders generally possess more intangible skills that enable them to take both themselves and their teams to places others cannot go. Adaptive leadership gives you competitive edge. 

So what are the traits of an adaptive leader? Tomes have been written on this, but for me, they boil down to four main characteristics – you need to be able to connect the changes you’re planning for your agency to the core values, capabilities and dreams of your team; you need to foster a culture that listens to, and respects, diverse opinion in order to facilitate change; you need to understand that upheaval, even in our sector, can be a painful process; and finally, you need to share your vision openly with your team, providing a rationale for change and setting out its impact.

Conversely, Trump breaks all these rules. His attempts at big changes are rarely communicated to his team in good time. They are delivered as a fait accompli.

Here are my top adaptive leadership tips for Trump – and adland in general. 

Cultivate emotional intelligence

It’s often thought that you’re either born with emotional intelligence, or you’re not. Actually, you can learn it, by building self-awareness, social awareness and understanding how both of these things feed into how you form and manage your relationships, above and below you.

By sometimes putting yourself in the shoes of others in your team, and continuously learning through experience and practice, you can grow leadership traits that allow you to encourage, motivate and lead people - not through fear, but through respect.

Embrace the truth – and be just

Great leaders don’t shy away from the truth – they’re transparent and forthcoming, they share information and they’re fair and open in their decision-making process. They walk the talk, and all of this makes people feel respected and valued.

Perhaps most importantly though, they’re bothered by the outcome. They care about the impact they have on their organisations, in a way that Trump has yet to demonstrate beyond the soundbite, both to his team and the world in general.

Don’t neglect yourself – or your teams – in the learning process

Most leaders are on an ongoing journey – they don’t know it all, because no one does. The moment we think we have nothing more to learn, and that we have no obligation help develop those we lead, is the point at which failure looms large.

It can be a challenge for leaders to adjust, especially when the ‘new normal’ will inevitably be overhauled again. But those who thrive in ‘grey areas’, who are unrestricted by the traditional conventions of their industry, and who are ready to hit reset when the time comes, are those who create sustainable businesses that thrive. 

Donald Trump could stand to learn a thing or few from the art of adaptive leadership.

Sharon Whale is chief executive of Oliver UK

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