Full disclosure – as an admitted Sanders/Clinton supporter, I sat in horror during most of the election season honestly terrified of the thought of Trump presidency. While I still don’t consider myself a “Trump supporter”, I’m most certainly a supporter of America and like many am looking for slivers of hope not just for him as our future leader but for the country as a whole. Surprisingly, while many were ridiculing some of Trump’s more controversial cabinet picks as delusional and illogical, I actually saw a potential stroke of genius with a few of the seemingly inappropriate picks. Let me explain….
First to clarify, I’m commenting exclusively on the selection criteria and philosophy not the actual picks themselves. As a non political pundit, I fully acknowledge that analyzing the likely efficacy of a particular individual is WAY beyond my pay grade so I will leave that to the political experts. Instead, as a corporate trainer and one with significant expertise working with teams and leaders, my interest lies in analyzing his selection process for these seemingly nonsensical selections.
When Trump announced Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy (after Perry famously recommended abolishing the department completely during his own failed presidential bid) and Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA even though he was described in a NY Times headline as a climate change denialist – later in the article he’s described as bent on dismantling President Obama’s efforts to counter climate change if not the EPA itself”! The article also cites Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group as saying “It’s a safe assumption that Pruitt could be the most hostile E.P.A. administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.” The pick to lead the Department of Education - Betsy DeVoss was equally perplexing as she’s known to be an outspoken advocate of the move to private education. The Wall Street Journal reported that after her selection Randi Weingarten the teachers’ union leader tweeted - “Trump has chosen the most ideological, anti-public ed nominee since the creation of the Dept of Education.”
Reviewing these cabinet picks who seem to hold strong views seemingly in direct opposition to the organizations they’re being charged to lead, one starts to sense a bit of a trend. On its face, that might seem illogical if not downright ludicrous (and I fully admit that’s still within the realm of possibility); however, I can’t help but withhold automatic critique of the general selection concept….and instead hold out a sliver of hope. Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that selecting a staunch, widely known adversary of a particular department might actually be the best strategy (unintentional or not) for moving towards that elusive middle ground and moving away from the dangerous, binary “us vs. them” territory that seems to paralyze both sides into a state of perpetual infighting and rob these critical issues (like climate change, energy policy, and education) of substantive progress and support. While many of Trump’s cabinet picks have had the “luxury” of throwing stones from a distance without the hard responsibility of tackling these significant challenges within the reality of resource and other constraints, it will be quite a different experience I suspect when they are at the helm. Indeed, as the top executive in each department, they will not only become immersed in the complexity of the issues, they will also be forced to develop strong bonds with thousands of employees who hold completely divergent views on these issues. That level of immersion will invariably shift their perspective just as the unconventional leader’s view will likely cause an organization that may suffer from a bit of groupthink to view these difficult challenges through a slightly different lens as well. Indeed, conflicting views often result in amazing innovation. Some would argue that the opposing views are not just helpful but almost a requirement for breakthrough thinking and radically different approaches. Irrespective of their views/personal preferences, they won’t be able to do the work themselves. Instead, their effectiveness as top executive will hinge on their ability to motivate their large staffs, and that will require a certain level of listening and consensus building.
I had a similar experience early in my career. As a new industrial engineering graduate, one of my first corporate jobs was that of a metrics manager for a large telecommunications company. As the metrics manager (in my early 20s), my job was to spearhead the development of a metrics program (including metrics reports) for the engineering organization. As one might suspect, I wasn’t terribly popular. Indeed, my focus on “measuring results” wasn’t looked upon favorably in a culture that resisted what they perceived to be too much process. While I sustained my fair share of snide comments and barbs about the ridiculous goal of “measuring the unmeasurable”, I had to develop a strategy for selecting members of my newly formed metrics team. While I was glad to welcome a couple engineers who volunteered and seemed to have a positive attitude, I was more interested in seeking out my most vocal metrics pessimists (if not adversaries). My thought was that if I could win them over, they would be the best voice pieces to sell the concept of metrics back to their cynical peers, and I’d also learn a lot through the process of negotiating with them and ultimately develop a much better product. It worked, and I don’t believe our team would have been nearly as effective had I not made a concerted effort to embrace my most vocal opponents.
While no one knows what impact these controversial picks will ultimately have on the critical agencies they’re tapped to lead, I’m certain that the experience will change them forever. I can only hope that the combining of such disparate views will ultimately yield changes for the better for us all.
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at email@example.com. Connect with her on Linked In @ www.linkedin.com/in/danabrownlee and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.