Why Business Leaders Should Think Like Insurgents
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Apr. 24, 2016 5:00PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Apr. 25, 2016 11:20AM EDT
Should you be like Donald Trump? Bernie Sanders? Justin Trudeau?
All three politicians may seem distant from your business role. But each is an insurgent leader, and consultants Scott Miller and David Morey believe you will be more successful if you adopt that stance.
Insurgent leadership transcends politics. Steve Jobs believed in the notion and reached out to Mr. Miller and Mr. Morey in the 1980s because of their experience as political consultants – over their careers, they have worked, individually and together, with Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Boris Yeltsin, Corazon Aquino, Gary Hart and U.S. President Barack Obama. The Apple leader felt that political campaigns had a sharper strategy and sharper elbows, containing lessons he could apply to the tech company’s business. Campaigns also have to plan to meet deadlines – there can be no change of election day.
In one of their early meetings, Mr. Jobs asked why Mr. Hart, in his bid for the Democratic nomination, kept referring to opponent Walter Mondale as “Mr. Vice-President.” They explained he was positioning the vice-president. “Oh, so you don’t just position yourself. You position your opponent,” they recall him saying. Soon came Apple’s campaign showing Microsoft as establishment nerd and Apple as friendly insurgent.
“If you don’t think, plan, and act like an insurgent, you’ll lose to one,” Mr. Miller said in an interview. “It was why big bookstores lost to Amazon. They couldn’t think like an insurgent.”
But can every big corporation act like an insurgent? Mr. Miller insists they can, pointing to Wal-Mart Stores, which sounds like a ridiculous example until you hear him out. Whole Foods Market had made great strides selling fresh, healthy organic food, to the point that people would willingly pay more for their goods – the chain was even jokingly referred to as “whole paycheque.” Four years ago, Wal-Mart announced it intended to be the world leader in fresh and natural food. It created an organic store brand. And it positioned that brand in an insurgent way, stressing it would cost the same as non-organic products. He feels Wal-Mart continually changes with the times and its customers, as an insurgent must do.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders have each caught a wave of anger with their insurgency. They too sensed how people were feeling. It may be less obvious with Mr. Trudeau’s sunny ways, but the Prime Minister also caught the mood of change – for activism and transparency – and in office has led like an insurgent, eager for transformation.
In their book The Leadership Campaign: 10 Political Strategies to Win at Your Career and Propel Your Business to Victory, they set out the importance of controlling the conversation, which Mr. Trump excels at. During each campaign debate, his message dominated if not destroyed the other candidates. His daily tweets seized control of the campaign conversation. “Trump’s strength is the simplicity of his message,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s the people versus the state – and the state of things.”
Similarly, top CEOs must be pathological about controlling the message. “Any CEO who doesn’t control the dialogue will lose to an insurgent,” Mr. Morey insists. Leaders must recognize that everything you do communicates – and will make a difference. You must play offence, seeking momentum. Pushing for change is critical, for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Justin Trudeau, or you. Learn to love change. View it as an opportunity.
Leaders have advisers, but you have to avoid being overly swayed by the last person who talked to you or become paralyzed by all the advice you have received. Mr. Miller said that’s Hillary Clinton’s problem: When answering a question, it seems she is sifting through all the advice received, which words to say, which ones to avoid, how to tweak to please. “Insurgent campaigners who survived have a small ‘kitchen cabinet.’ The good leader has a few voices they trust – not 85,” he said.
Mr. Obama was a brilliant communicator as an insurgent candidate but has not shone in that capacity in office. They urge insurgent leaders to boil their ideas down to fit on a 3-by-5-inch index card – a headline that states the principal objective of the campaign strategy and four or five supportive bullet points to hammer it home. But Mr. Miller feels that during Mr. Obama’s presidency, the index cards have been abandoned for a constitutional lawyer’s detailed legal briefs.
Neither supports Mr. Trump. But they admire his success as an insurgent. “I’m mortified that Trump is the example of a successful campaign but he’s running an insurgent campaign pretty well,” Mr. Miller said.
So can you.