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Has Trump re-written the rules of leadership?

donald trump

I watched the US Presidential campaigns in 2016 with increasing fascination as it appeared that Donald Trump was gaining support.

As a leadership coaches and experienced leaders ourselves (we have led organizations ranging from 20 people to 3,000), we at Stratervation tell our clients that selfless leadership is better than selfish leadership; that inspiration works better than fear; That a leader’s job is to get the best out of their teams and to help those teams succeed.

We also believe in authentic leadership — that a leader inspires loyalty by putting his followers ahead of himself, and admitting it when he makes mistakes. We believe the best leaders are reliable and tell the truth. We talk a lot about leaders having self-knowledge.

Most of this was the exact opposite of what Trump was doing to get elected. Sure, his vision put the country ahead of himself — it’s make America great again, not make Trump great again; but Trump disregarded facts completely and made stuff up to make himself look good — and his opponents look bad. He attacked and belittled and bullied anybody who wasn’t slavishly loyal to him. And he succeeded! He got elected.

Was he going to force us to re-write our Leadership handbook?

As I write this, it’s six months into the Trump presidency. I think we have enough data now to start making some conclusions.

  1. Donald beat Clinton on oratory, hands down. His “Make America Great Again” slogan had a strong verb in it: “make.” Clinton’s slogan was “Better Together,” which is meaningless and mealy-mouthed and weak. I watched Clinton’s speech where she declared that she was standing. I can’t remember a single thing about that speech. Say what you like about Trump, he knows how to move a crowd.
  2. Leadership is still misogynistic. For a woman at that level to succeed in a man’s world is very difficult. Clinton’s persona as an intellectual and geek didn’t help against a man who understand how to touch the common person so powerfully.
  3. Fear sells, especially when it’s linked to a clear remedy for that fear. We know this from advertising studies (click here for a 1999 study in the Journal of Business Ethics, or here for how fear persuades, especially when linked with a clear call to action.) By playing into white people’s fear of demographic change, Trump out-played Clinton. Not by much — Clinton won the popular vote; but by enough. The US elected President Trump, not Clinton.

OK so Trump is a compelling (if negative) speaker; the system was stacked against a woman president (and Clinton still came pretty close). The US wanted a break from the past, and Trump offered that clean break.

Trump a good leader though?

To answer that question, we have to define two concepts. “Good,” and “Leader.”

My favorite definition of leadership comes from Mike T Williams, former SA barefoot waterskiing champion. “Leadership is articulating a vision, and then through yourself and others, causing that vision to become a reality.”

Has he “articulated a vision?” Certainly! Trump’s vision is “Make America Great Again.” He has other visions for the country as well — building a border wall, repealing universal healthcare and replacing it with something “better.” Removing all illegal immigrants, especially Muslims and Latinos from the US.

Is he, “through himself and others” causing that vision to be a reality?

French aviator and writer Antoine de St Exupery wrote in his book Wisdom of Sands: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

That’s the power of inspiration, right there, in one quote.

In 21st century English that is: “Articulate a vision, and (once you get your teams’ buy in), through yourself and others cause that vision to become a reality.”

I’m fond of saying: “You can’t inspire people by criticizing them.”

So, how has Trump used his first six months?

He loves to criticize and threaten. He has been threatening the Republicans to get them to pass a healthcare bill that is incredibly unpopular in his own party and in the US government as a whole; he criticizes and vilifies the media who don’t report they way he wants them to; he is singling out individuals such as his loyal supporter Jeff Sessions, the Mayor of London, a (woman) Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski on Twitter and heaping scorn on them.

As a result, Republicans are beginning to turn on their leader. He accused President Obama of spying on him, and everybody basically ignored that as unhinged ranting.

His team members — the Republicans — are defying Trump and rallying around Jeff Sessions. They realize that if Sessions can get it in the neck, they might be next.

Here’s a short Stratervation checklist on effective leadership. Does Trump stack up?

Selfless leadership is better than selfish leadership? No. Trump has consistently put his family, his businesses, his friends and supporters ahead of the greater good.

Inspiration works better than fear? Mixed. His Make America Great Again is an uplifting statement, but his personal style is to attack anybody who he disagrees with.

That a leader’s job is to get the best out of their teams and to help those teams succeed. Um. No. Trump fails on this because he is not trying to help his teams succeed. He doesn’t even seem to be engaging on the issues.

Authentic leadership — that a leader admits when he makes mistakes? Absolutely not. According to himself, he has never made a mistake.

We believe the best leaders are reliable and tell the truth. Again, no. He seems incapable of keeping a promise.

Self-knowledge? Again, absolutely not.

It’s six months since he was elected. According to Stratervation, he’s not a good leader; according to US opinion polls, he’s  failing dismally, even among his own base.

Personally, I’m relieved that Trump didn’t force us here at Stratervation to re-evaluate everything we ever learned about leadership.


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