Industrial-Age Leadership Is Dead: Massive Leadership Lessons From Trump & May at the Edge of Chaos

Last year, two politicians were thrust into positions of power on both sides of the Atlantic. They are now perhaps the two most visible leaders on the planet, the heads of state of the Anglo-Saxon powerhouses of the United States and the United Kingdom. The thing is, these two people exhibit publicly a form of leadership that is starkly at odds with the type that I make a living from speaking about, researching and teaching: what I call ‘switched on’ leadership. Here is a summary of our leadership model & map (you can download a fully annotated version here).

The rise of Trump and May and their seemingly very switched off leadership has given me much to reflect on. In the White House, the volatile and often vicious Donald Trump burst onto the scene berating and blaming all and sundry, vilifying the press for speaking (their) truth to (his) power and playing infantile power games with world leaders to get the upper hand (often literally). Back in No.10 Downing Street, Theresa May has spent months publicly gnashing her teeth at her European allies - neighbors with whom she needs to collaborate to with to form a win-win-win for Brexit - whist autocratically running her cabinet as if her own personal fiefdom.

I have spent many weeks thinking long and hard: Are so-called ‘strong’ and overtly power-hungry ways of managing others still the way to get ahead and get stuff done? Does the VUCANS world we live in require ambitious, strong-willed and very directive leaders to drive forward innovation? Do ‘nice’ connected, creative and collaborative folk finish last? And what should I say when clients ask questions about why our leadership model seems to be so different to that demonstrated by the power couple?

At the core of our transformative methodology The Switch On Way, and so at the heart of my metaphysics, is the understanding that if a pattern or habit - a set of feelings, thoughts and actions (and this includes products, processes and policies) - fits with the emerging world then we will thrive and our organizations will thrive with us. But if how we act, think and feel does not fit with the world as it changes, we will keep on encountering ‘fails’. A fail might be something obvious like not getting a promotion or delivering an unsuccessful project... or something more subtle like increased employee disengagement or decreased trust in us. Clearly, the more obvious visible fails and the more subtle invisible issues are usually causally connected.

This ‘fit or fail’ principle means that if these two leaders step onto the world-historical stage enacting a disconnected and switched off form of leadership and they keep succeeding... then my beliefs and assumptions are faulty and they need to change. If May and Trump win by being arrogant and authoritarian then I am definitely teaching the wrong leadership model. On the other hand, if they keep experiencing fails, then their model is no longer a fit and I can keep on teaching our model of conscious, connected and collaborative leadership.

Much is at stake. Many retrogressive leaders in business as well as politics must have taken comfort from the initial successes of Trump and May in getting into power. This may have boosted dictatorial, defensive and inauthentic ways. I imagine many bosses have been egged on by the rise of politicians who appear to have been sent from the 1950s where such power-plays seem to have actually worked.

And then the month of May 2017 occurred. In this single month, Trump and May experienced a series of fails that could end both their reigns at the top of the hierarchy quickly. Simply put, their autocratic and self-serving leadership modes have created potentially career-terminating problems. This has proven to me that their way of leading is no longer a good fit with the digital, co-creative and transparent world we find ourselves in. Although different in many ways, both May and Trump have demonstrated a retrogressive leadership styles that is a total mismatch for our times.

Theresa May’s pseudo-presidential, avoid-showing-up-at-televized-debates election campaign resulted in a resounding piece of feedback from the electorate: her tense, stage-managed and pretend-invincible ways of operating do not connect with many. So the citizens of the UK took away the slim majority she had in the House of Commons, forcing her to rely on a tiny party in Northern Ireland to even hold onto power at all. This has cast her into an unprecedented political crisis that she brought on herself - by calling an election and then failing to win it - that will result in another general election soon or five years of a minority government that will find it hard to enact new laws let alone negotiate Brexit: the most important constitutional issue of our age. And every day there are rumors of a leadership challenge from within her ranks as her Tory colleagues smell weakness.

Whatever happens, her credibility has been eroded and her political capital has been shook. She can’t fire any of the big wigs in her team anymore because she needs their support to hold onto what power she has. Her two chiefs of staff, who apparently so steeped in her authoritarian culture that they thought it was appropriate to send “sweary” text messages to seniors cabinet ministers, had to resign amidst outcry from her own party. And her inability to meet and connect with the survivors of the Grenfell Tower blaze and her failure to sense the mood of the nation has confirmed perceptions that she is an anachronism in our age of sensitive, systemic leadership. Even one of her own MPs said that “Theresa is aloof, impersonal, and finds it difficult to empathise.

Meanwhile Donald Trump, busying firing respected civil servants like former FBI Director Comey for his own personal benefit rather than for the good of the country - and then brashly bragging about it on Twitter - has seen that same public official testify to Congress that Trump obstructed justice and lied to the American people. Robert Mueller III, the special council appointed by the Justice Department to find out if Russia influenced the elections of the most powerful country on Earth, has included the President directly in the investigations.

Accusations of abuse of power and unethical dealings with Russia will, at best, plague his presidency and suck enormous amounts of energy and time from him and his team that could be spent legislating and leading. At worst, it will lead to his impeachment. Meanwhile damaging daily leaks emerge from a White House where spokespeople are undermined by Trump after they have gone out publicly to take flack for him; and his own parties congresspeople are failing to enact any signature legislation under his ‘leadership’.

The impact of all this is huge. As Trump’s star wanes, America’s global standing as the grown up at the international table has taken a massive dent. It may never recover from this. American influencing power is being eroded (for example at the G20), whilst boosting that of arch-competitor’s China, recasting the Asian super-power as a modern, green political economy. The massive decline of American ‘brand equity’ has been accelerated by a leader whose arguably most important job is to leverage his soft power - the power to engage, influence and bring people along into a new vision without military or economic sanctions - to make the world a safer, better and more thriving place for all its citizens. A similar erosion of Britain’s soft power has occurred under Theresa May and her cabinet, who think that being rude and arrogant in the press about partners and collaborators is ‘strong’ leadership.

Whether either of these political leaders learn from this remains to be seen. One of the core principles of conscious leadership is that we take feedback and fails as opportunities to lead ourselves to embody and embed transformative changes. This is not about becoming someone inauthentic. It is about becoming a more connected, creative and collaborative version of ourselves - more like who we were when before we decided we had to pretend to be clever, tough or anything else to protect ourselves and ‘win’.

Trump seems to have remarkably little capacity to take the feedback the world gives him and metabolize it into personal leadership breakthroughs. This may never change and severely limit his growth and that of his country. May, however, does seem more willing. After a crucial meeting with backbench MPs to reassure them about the election losses, she was described as a “an incredibly humble woman who knows what she has to do, and that is be who she is and not what this job had turned her into. She has lost her armadillo shell and we have got a leader back.”

However, Ms May appears not to understand the process of personal transformation and presumably does not have someone that does supporting her. She keep vacillating quite publicly between a more ‘switched on’ version of herself and the personality she has constructed (as we all have) that is dominated by established protective and controlling patterns. This can even happen in one sentence. She admits in an interview that she ‘shed a tear’ after her election loss showing us she can be vulnerable... but then feels she has to assure us that it was only a “little tear”. This is heartbreaking. She knows she wants to open up but is really scared to. Without coaching, mentoring or support to help her embody and embed those fragile new ways of behaving, her capacity for radical growth in personal power will be limited.

One political leader who seems to have really engaged in personal transformation and make progress is Jeremy Corbyn. He seems to be in the process of expanding before our very eyes, surprising people like me who vocally criticized his leadership skills. Rather than avoid or deny his fails, he seems to have switched on to them and metabolized them into new possibilities. He seems to have genuinely stepped up into a huge opportunity given him by fate: one that I imagine he was not grooming himself for unlike so many of his ambitious rivals. The shock figures he landed in the general election - 50% over 35-44 year olds - speak elegantly of the tangible impact that switched on leadership has in the ‘real’ world.

Jeremy Corbyn seems to have moved away from death-by-consultation - which is usually a protective pattern of ‘niceness’ that is often prevalent in left-wing circles and is driven by a desire to be liked and thought of as ‘equitable’ all the time - and is showing that he can make decisions himself when needed. But rather than be aggressively ballsy like Trump he is starting to be playfully audacious.

Mr. Corbyn may have realized that if you want to lead a major modern country - and so have the power to launch nuclear missiles that kill millions - you can’t be always about protest (the anti-ness of the left and post-modern criticism in general); and you can’t always defer to consensus. You have to show that you can make the tough decisions when necessary without anyone else to tell you that you are doing the right thing (or that you are liked, as you won’t always be). You have to be able to trust in your intuition, refined over a lifetime, as you lead in the world.

For truly 21st century, Digital-Age leadership is not about always getting input and approval from others in the networks we lead. Truly co-creative leadership is not a free for all. Far from it. It is about knowing when to co-create with others, when to co-ordinate with them, when to empower and delegate and when to direct things oneself to perfection. A switched on leader can flex between these different modes of collaborative action, from being hierarchical when speed of action and decisive decision-making will create the best result for all. And being deeply, profoundly, rip-roaringly open-heartedly co-creative when diversity of thought and breadth of engagement will generate the best outcomes for the whole.

Such a next-level leader is never locked into one style, brittle and reactive. Instead - precisely because they have become responsive, creative, agile and adaptable through years of self-mastery - they can consciously choose how to respond to a challenge to optimize the pursuit of genuine purpose. Purpose, which I unashamedly speak of in senior leadership circles as “love-in-action” guides us with what problems to solve and what decisions to make based on how we can best serve the thriving of the network; rather than what serves the leaders power, prestige and profit.

But it is impossible to lead purposefully whilst we are still caught up in the ego’s games of world domination - even though we must honor its role to protect us in everything it does. One of the key skills of self-mastery as a leader is to be able to know when we are acting from what we call Control & Protect Mode; and how to switch into Create & Connect Mode. Managing this creative tension, in ourselves, our teams and our organizations, is key to innovation, transformation and positive change.

Above all, in an age of fast and furious and utterly relentless change (as well as the uncertainty, chaos, complexity and ambiguity it brings), we need our leaders to be able to guide us through transformation. For with every breakthrough, within ourselves right up to within global systems, the old must be let go of before the new can form. This means leaders must be able to help those they lead safely and strategically deconstruct old (business) models and behaviors so they they can construct breakthrough policies, strategies and cultures.

In between the two, where old processes and practices are failing but the new has not yet been fully born, is the ‘edge of chaos’. At the edge of chaos, confusion as well as creativity are at their maximum. This can be terrifying, bewildering and disorienting for most. It is in these moments when we need great leadership the most. We need transformative leaders who can both accelerate the process of innovation and transformation and hold us in psychological - and that means emotional - safety as things fall apart. See this Google research on the centrality of emotional safety to their highest performing teams.

If we don’t have such leadership, that understand how to guide us through the edge of chaos, people get scared. When they do, they try to return to old patterns that once helped them feel safe - through pride, solidarity and community. This will often include aggressive nationalism, economic protectionism and racism. As old ways of thinking and doing break down - as they are in the UK, US and across the world - we need leaders who can rebuild the trust - the lubricant of all change - by proactively pulling together the frayed edges of society. This means weaving, co-creatively, the fabric torn apart by terrorist and ethnically-driven attacks, economic uncertainty, wage stagnation and everything else - so we hold together.

The center can, and must, hold. And it is a leaders job, at any point in the hierarchy not just at the top, to ensure it does. Here is more about the edge of chaos - within the archetypal blueprint of transformative change, The Breakthrough Curve:

Right now, as our economic, commercial and political systems enter the edge of chaos in an unprecedented way, we desperately need leaders who intuitively and intellectually understand the trials and triumphs of the natural process of transformational change and are not scared by it but embrace it. We need leaders who can elegantly and gracefully use their hearts, as much as their heads and hands, to usher us past the edge so that we can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes with new business models, governance models and economic models that ensure we all thrive. We need leaders who know how to put aside their own need and greed and instead serve what is seeking to emerge from the system. Weak signals about future breakthroughs are always visible to those who can see the world as it is, not how they wished it was.

If we don’t have leaders emerging like this, there will be ever-increasing strife, stress and suffering as our systems crash. Without leaders holding space for breakthrough - seeing the gain within the pain of change - self-protective anger and knee-jerk reactivity will take further hold. Without leaders that can use narrative to paint pictures of possibility and hold space for hope - who can help us see and feel a new vision for our future in a post-capitalist and post-carbon world whilst ensuring we can locate our own roles in building that reality - people will do whatever it takes to return to perceived ‘greatness’ in the past, even if that means hurting others and themselves in the process. People cannot live without meaning and if our leaders don’t help us generate positive meaning about a low-energy, low-waste, low-growth but high tech future (the 4th Industrial Revolution is already happening) we will seek it in the past: one where white power ruled and military might dominated.

There is little place for hubristic trumpismo or a mechanical Maybot-style leadership in any organization today. The industrial-age leadership model - patriarchal, authoritarian, invincible - fails in the digital age. Management techniques developed to create efficiencies on the assembly line or to ensure workers did what they were told by the master of the house are not a fit with our fast-changing and profoundly networked world.

As people, products, places and processes are connected together in utterly unprecedented ways, there is no longer a wall - whether in the West Wing, No.10 or your corporate firewall - to hide behind. So how we treat other people spreads through networks in seconds, changing our reputation in minutes. Whether it is employee reviews of corporates or consumers openly reviewing after-sale customer service, transparency is a key part of the 21st century.

For those of is who came of age in the Digital Age, purpose, empathy, collaboration and connection are business as usual. Real vulnerability - like changing one’s views as one learns about oneself and the system (as long as we can share our new insights within a narrative of growth and expansion), being open about one’s fears and feelings (in a wise, securing way), and holding space for others to transform, take risks and grow - is what strength is really about. Agility, flexibility, responsiveness and reflectiveness must always sit in creative tension within with purpose, decisiveness, commitment and conviction 

We do live in interesting times. The question is, can we lead ourselves and others through them to forge, and not fail, the future?

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