The 2016 U.S. Presidential Race not only transformed how leaders successfully challenge the status quo, but also created innovative teaching opportunities in this new leadership era. Since successful leadership development programs teach students effective skills to communicate ideas, understand others’ opinions, and influence decisions, how can we make classrooms psychologically-safe places for authentic student voices to assess how leaders influence them daily? As a political outsider winning the highest U.S. leadership position, President Trump inadvertently mobilized student activism, bringing political correctness and free speech questions into the open. Consequently, he and his challengers ignited activism as a form of innovation, “the capacity to generate ideas…that are novel and useful” (Chan, Fu, Schunn, Cagan, Wood, & Kotvsky, 2011, p.1). Yet, successful innovation depends on understanding power and influence.
With company leaders’ and students’ activism increasing, learning how to challenge the status quo is critical in today’s world, thus inspiring leadership educators to creatively make power lessons relevant to students’ lives. After Matt Maloney, Grubhub CEO, publicly spoke against Trump’s “nationalist, anti-immigrant, and hateful policies” and committed to fighting for employees’ rights, Grubhub’s stock dropped 4% (Taranto, 2016). In 2017, individuals began resurrecting innovative methods for voicing new ideas challenging norms through increasing world protests about social justice, liberal, and conservative free speech issues. Inspired by one grandmother’s call for a “Women’s March on Washington”, 2.6 million people participated in over 600 women’s rights marches (Przybyla & Schouten, 2017), motivating approximately 11,000 women to run for political offices (Kurtzleben, 2017). After University of California-Berkeley cancelled conservative speaker Ann Coulter’s campus speech, Berkeley College Republicans sued for free speech violations (St. John, 2017).
By making course material relevant to students, leadership educators motivate student engagement in learning (Burke & Moore, 2003). World leaders, such as Genghis Khan, George Washington, and Nelson Mandela, have shaped history and been effective examples in leadership education (e.g., Bongila, 2011). Similarly, critical moments surrounding this election provide leadership lessons relevant to college students not only because they can vote (Niemi & Hanmer, 2010), but also because the election provides historic first examples in challenging the status quo. Despite their voting rights, less than half of 18 to 24 year-olds voted in previous elections: 41.9% in 2004, 44.3% in 2008, 38% in 2012 (File, 2014), and approximately 50% of 18 to 29 year-olds in 2016 (Tufts University, 2016).
By critically analyzing how power and influencing tactics are used in this exercise, students learn how leaders transform the status quo. Students consider President Trump, political candidates, and analysts using videoclips and polls related to three historic moments during which President Trump defied political expert opinion and gained public support demonstrating that a political outsider and businessman could win: (a) first 2015 Republican Primary Candidate Debate (Fox News, 2015) that transformed public perceptions (Diaz, 2015; Martin, 2016); (b) first U.S. Presidential Candidate debate, the first time a woman and political outsider debated as top two presidential candidates; and (c) President Trump’s inaugural speech. Despite experts’ arguments he lost the first Republican primary debate (Fox News, 2015), his presidential candidacy support increased. Further, Trump’s inauguration speech legitimized not only that the status quo had changed, but more importantly, how to change it. Consequently, he ignited the social protest movement rise on all sides: Conservatives’, Liberals’, and individuals’ free speech rights to challenge issues globally.
World leaders’ speech, diplomacy, and decision-making skills set behavioral standards for discussing leadership effectiveness and ineffectiveness. This exercise’s objectives include students learning: (a) to describe how different power sources and influencing tactics impact leadership perceptions, (b) to critically evaluate their use, (c) to practice conveying opinions and persuasion using influencing tactics, and (d) to become self-aware of how they are influenced. By creating classroom space to discuss a leader who is paradoxically both polarizing and empowering, instructors innovatively challenge the status quo, proactively role-modeling constructive leadership dialogue within classrooms.
Power, Leaders, and Influence in the U.S. Presidential Election. Power influences leadership perceptions (Koslowsky, Schwarzwald, & Ashuri, 2001; Schwarzwald, Koslowsky, & Agassi, 2001). Social power is the potential ability of an agent to influence targets to act as the agent wants (French & Raven, 1959; Raven, 1992, 2008) by controlling resources the target values within their interdependent relationship (Galinsky, Rucker & Magee, 2015; Magee & Galinsky, 2008). Powerful leaders influence followers to act and/or change beliefs (Pierro, Raven, Amato, & Bélanger, 2013; Raven, 1993) by providing or withholding valued resources (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). Extending power theory to this context, presidential candidates and voters exist in an interdependent relationship; candidates act as agents controlling resources voters value (e.g., social security, safety, education, taxes), while voters control votes candidates value.
Social power bases. Followers’ decisions to act as the leader wants depends on the leader’s power base (Pierro et al., 2013). Although later expanded by Raven (1992, 1993, 2008), six bases for social power (French & Raven, 1959; Raven, 1965) are traditionally addressed in leadership courses: legitimate power based in formal authority position; expert power in specific content domain knowledge; reward power in controlling valued resources; coercive power in perceived punishments; referent in identifying with agent; and informational power in controlling information (Raven, 1992, 1999). Depending on the degree of force limiting the target’s autonomy, these bases are harsh or soft (Pierro, Cicero, & Raven, 2008; Pierro, Kruglanski, & Raven, 2012; Raven, Schwarzwald, & Koslowsky, 1998).
Influencing strategies. Leaders impact followers’ perceptions by using legitimization, rational persuasion, ingratiation, inspirational appeals, exchange, and pressure influencing tactics to persuade them to change their beliefs or actions (Kipnis, Schmidt, Swaffin-Smith, & Wilkinson, 1984; Kipnis, Schmidt, & Wilkinson, 1980; Schriesheim & Hinkin, 1990; Simpson, Farrel, Oriña, & Rothman, 2014). Legitimization reinforces leader’s decision-making authority. Rational persuasion uses logical arguments based on target’s needs. Ingratiation uses complements. Inspirational appeals consider the target’s values and goals. Exchange uses reciprocity and pressure builds on target’s fear of losing valued rewards. People effectively influence others when using tactics based on the agent’s needs and target’s ability to produce outcomes (Kipnis et al., 1980).
Critical Thinking in Assessing Power “In the News”. Critical thinking involves analyzing different perspectives to determine an individual’s beliefs about issues. Media impact how organizational leaders interpret institutional pressures regarding government, organizations, and societal expectations in decision-making (Clegg, 1989; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Hardy & Clegg, 1996; Pfeffer, 1981). Many students are eligible voters and future organizational leaders. In examining societal issues, journalists present audiences with factual evidence and analysts’ opinions regarding what these facts mean practically for those with decision-making power, thus influencing students’ voting decisions. Discussing election media coverage provides an engaging context for students to critically analyze power and influencing strategies. Because no universally-accepted view of leadership effectiveness exists (Adler, 1997) and scholars define power differently (Sturm & Antonakis, 2015), examining how political leaders use power to challenge the status quo in an election context allows students’ intellectual freedom to share constructive opinions that challenge others’; no correct answer exists.
Presidential election debates and expert analyses demonstrate how powerful leaders use influencing tactics to manipulate information asymmetry conditions, information-sharing processes and decision-making effectiveness to influence perception (Diesing, 1962; Edmonson, Roberto & Watkins, 2003). For example, after candidates presented their versions of factual evidence, Washington Post journalist Glen Kessler (2015) used rational persuasion tactics to argue 21 claims they made during the 2015 Republican Primary Debate were questionable.
Debates: Power and Influence Teaching Tools. Debate exercises stimulate students’ critical thinking skills regarding contemporary issues by considering multiple perspectives, such as debate simulations examining different stakeholder perspectives regarding social security (e.g., Goertzen, 2007). Presidential debates are useful for instructors both to demonstrate visually how power transforms traditional leadership perceptual norms and to access supplemental instructional media resources. Analysts’ opinions and poll results are readily available for adding diverse insight. Remaining focused on one world leader’s journey to influence public perceptions, instructors guide students in examining Trump’s decisions to impact voter perceptions as presidential candidate, and then in mobilizing public support for his presidential vision.
Debates provide historical visual records for students to learn how elected leaders and their competitors challenged traditionally-accepted leadership norms, extending class dialogue about diversity. Although Hillary Clinton and Trump’s Republican competitors lost, instructors can ask whether their losing efforts effectively challenged the status quo. For example, in appealing to Christian voters, Senator Ted Cruz was the first presidential candidate to launch a presidential campaign at “Liberty – the largest Christian university” (Draper, 2016). Carly Fiorina was the first woman to declare Republican presidential nomination candidacy (Mitchell, 2015) and Hillary Clinton was the first woman to win the Democratic presidential nomination. How do gendered communication (Lee & Lim, 2016) and stereotypes influence leaders’ attempts to challenge norms? Further, how can we evaluate sexism and misogyny critiques (e.g., Wilz, 2016)?
The Exercise: Challenging the Status Quo
This presidential election context motivates students to learn about power and influence not only because it changed traditional voting behavioral norms (Barrone, 2015; Bryant, 2016), but also because President Trump defied analysts’ expectations and won (Burns & Martin, 2016). In analyzing Trump’s powerful rise, students discuss three critical moments during which he influenced public perceptions: (a) first 2015 Republican primary debate, (b) 2016 presidential debate with Clinton, and (c) inaugural speech. In optimizing time constraints, I found these situations motivated discussion because they illustrate his power and tendency to use inspirational appeals and personal appeals, rather than rational persuasion, influencing tactics to impact perception.
Part 1. Pre-Class Assignment. As a written assignment, students complete readings about power and influencing tactics (Table 1). Supplemental readings about social identity and privilege are suggested as examples for enriching discussions with gender-specific topics.
Students watch videoclips (Figure 1) illustrating leaders’ influencing strategies (Figure 2), and develop arguments for (in)effective use of influencing tactics on perceptions (Figure 3 Worksheet).
Figure 1. Challenging the Status Quo Pre-Class Discussion Assignment
Based on Lussier & Achua (2013, p. 149-156)
Figure 2. Seeing is Believing: Power and Influencing Tactics Handout
Figure 3. Analyzing Leaders’ Power and Influence Worksheet
Part 2. In-Class Facilitation. The in-class group discussion has 6 steps with estimated times for class of 27.
Step 1. (In)Effective Influencer? (Small Groups; 15 mins) Divide class into groups of 3-5 students and have them share answers about leaders’ power and influencing effectiveness that were in videoclips. Using theoretical concepts, small groups develop two examples of effective and ineffective influencing tactic use. Groups record answers on whiteboards. By listening to others’ arguments, they learn how individual perceptions about power and influence differ based on experiences. For example, students defined influencing effectively differently: “honest/ethical in answering questions”; “most persuasive in arguments, regardless of whether the facts are true”; and “walked their talk”. Consequently, this exercise component is particularly engaging in small groups, who agree on (in)effective influence examples, but need to develop mutually- agreed upon arguments explaining why.
Step 2. Class Discussion “How leaders influence follower perceptions” (Entire class; 25 mins). Each group presents their ideas, and answers questions. Illustrative examples including videoclip location are provided for instructors to stimulate dialogue: (a) first 2015 Republican Primary Debate (Table 2), (b) first 2016 Trump and Clinton debate (Table 3), and (c) inaugural speech (Table 4). The first round of the 2015 Republican Primary debate questions concerned electability. Candidates’ qualifications are presented on-screen, and viewers can see and hear audience’s responses. These clips illustrate candidates’ influencing tactics with each other and anchors.
First 2016 Presidential Trump-Clinton Debate Influencing Tactics
In extending the inaugural speech discussion (Table 4), students can research facts, commitment to promises (e.g., executive orders), and rise of conservative and liberal student activism following the election.
Step 3. Opposite Perspective-Taking (Small groups; 15 mins). Class returns to small groups. Small groups consider two questions: (a) have your answers changed and (b) how have candidates’ performances impacted social movements (e.g., free speech; activism). Small groups reflect on another group(s) contrary arguments (e.g., situations where they thought a leader used influencing tactics effectively, and another group disagreed). Role debate invites students to consider alternative perspectives without feeling forced (Donovan & Towsend, 2016). Groups add answers to the board.
Step 4. Analyze Classmates’ Influencing Tactics (Large Class; 20 mins).Students discuss how power and influence appeared in the class. Did groups change their answers? Students share examples of how influencing tactics were used to persuade students to change opinions.
Step 5. Who has Power? (Large Class; 20 mins).Using debates to stimulate discussion, instructors share what political analysts, those with expert power, predicted about winning strategies, and ask students to reflect on why (see Table 5). Students will become more engaged when realizing political analyst experts disagreed, motivating practical discussion about who determines who has power. For example, Trump’s standing in the election rose after the 2015 Republican Primary debate according to the Huffington Post (2016) that tracked 235 polls from 35 pollsters. Yet, interestingly, CNN analysts (Aug 7, 2015) disagreed as only one analyst projected Trump as winner: a) David Gergen, senior political analyst – John Kasich and Carly Fiorina; b) Dan Pheiffer, former President Obama advisor- Marco Rubio; Tara Setmayer, political commentator -Marco Rubio; c) Mel Robins, legal analyst – Donald Trump; and, d) William Howell, political science professor – Marco Rubio.
Step 6. Explore Power, Social identity, and Privilege. Discuss how social identity impacts the use and perception of power and influence. Social identity is influenced by individual self-awareness of membership in specific social groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1985). Power inequities based on race and ethnicity influence interpersonal interactions (Foldy, Rivard, & Buckley, 2008) because power provides White leaders more advantages than Black leaders in different organizational conditions (Alderfer, Alderfer, Tucker & Tucker, 1980; Alderfer & Smith, 1982). Challenge students to learn how social identity and privilege relate to power and influence. For example, power can be influenced by and influence gendered perceptions, as illustrated by President Trump and Ms. Kelley’s interaction (see Table 2). Senator Cruz’s campaign mobilized disengaged white voters and evangelical Christians (Draper, 2016). How do power and influencing tactics frame perceptions of diverse groups positively and negatively? What are implications for reducing systemic bias or oppression? Does power enable or limit diverse populations in leadership?
Media behavior illustrates power and influence. Students can learn how media, as power coalitions, impact power inequities. Gender stereotypes impact perceptions and behavior (Sandberg, 2013). For example, Trump criticized Ms. Kelly for her question about women (see Table 2). In using their own power and privilege, how did Ms. Kelly and Mr. Trump influence how the power of women is perceived? Discuss how media analyzed President Trump’s power to influence public perception of diverse groups, following comments about a Muslim American soldier killed in action (Burns, Haberman, & Parker, 2016; WGBH News, 2016).
Step 7. Practical application. Students reflect on what they learned and practical implications challenging norms. Instructors can provide visual examples of how this election subsequently motivated student activism, specifically how college students have used power and influencing tactics to challenge the status quo: conservative students suing Berkley (Fox News Insider, 2017) or college students’ participation in the 2017 Women’s March D.C. (Tulp, 2017). Students have realized they have more power than they thought.
Facilitator Lessons Learned.
For active engagement, students should know the theory, election context, and have an independent opportunity to develop their opinion about questions with different answers. After explaining how effective leaders stand behind their opinions and actively share them, I found students listened more openly to classmates’ ideas, asking them questions.
Values influence effectiveness perceptions. Debates are designed to raise contrasting views on questions; therefore, no official winner exists. Rather, individual perceptions regarding who won is impacted differently by people’s values. Values determine attitudes, which determine intention, and then behavior (Ajzen, 1991). Thus, evaluating influencing tactics presents opportunities to consider how values strengthen the impact of influencing tactics positively, and negatively.
Individual voice vs. peer pressure. This exercise challenges students to take a stand and voice independent opinions prior to knowing their peers’; thus, accountability measures are necessary. Prior to class discussion, students submit original arguments in written form (e.g., essay; online discussion board). Because peer pressure silences students, I do not ask political affiliation. During my first experience, I asked them to share this if they wanted, and found they reiterated party views, but could not articulate their own arguments. In contrast, the discussion became more alive with divergent views, and international students felt included.
Multicultural perspectives. Classroom exercises that integrate social issues (e.g., André, 2016; White & Sheehan, 2016) explore the multidimensional impact of leaders’ decisions (Schmidt-Wilk & Lovelace, 2016). Considering leadership perceptions differ across national cultures (Adler, 1997; Alves, Lovelace, Manz, Matsypura, Toyasaki, & Ke, 2006), I found international students were eager to participate, sharing how the U.S. presidential election impacted them and their families.
Overall, this exercise motivated students’ desire to talk and learn from each other about what course theoretical content, particularly power and influence, means in their lives, and for their leadership goals. Most importantly, they discovered they have the power to make a difference in life.
The author would like to thank George Lebrón for his careful feedback and comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.
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Dr. Mariana Lebrón is an assistant professor of management in the Department of Management, College of Business and Economics, at Towson University. She teaches and consults about organizational leadership, change, and behavior. Her research considers how power and influence impact high-performing diverse teams. She is a motivational speaker for impacting positive societal change. Email: email@example.com