Leadership Lessons from Donald Trump & Bernie Sanders

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As a student of leadership and history it is impossible to avoid a search for meaning in the current political theater. There are lessons for business leaders in the mental models exhibited by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. How they solve problems can change our world for better or worse. This is a non-partisan discussion.

Are political leaders a reflection of the culture or do they set the culture? Probably, both. If we understand how some of the current candidates both think and behave we have reason for grave concern.

Direct vs. Systemic Causation

Bernie SandersIn the mental framework of Bernie Sanders the problem is simple: “Let us wage a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders, on Wall Street and elsewhere, whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.” That is the problem. The solution is just as simple: free health care, free college for all, paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation. Simple problem and simple solution. Who wouldn’t want free healthcare and college education and who cares about those evil Wall Street speculators? Defining good and evil and direct causation has its appeal.

It should be obvious that nothing is “free.” The only question is “who will pay, if not you, and what are the consequences?” If you search Sander’s website and policy pronouncements you can find no sensible mathematics by which you could pay for his proposals. What is speculation? Is your 401k invested in mutual funds speculation? How much of a tax? What are the secondary effects of such a tax? Would free college education increase or decrease the growth of college costs? Even left leaning economists have suggested his proposals are unrealistic. Both the problem and the solution are little more than slogans.

“His legislative record was to state the ideological position he took on the left, but with the exception of a few small things, he never got anything done,” said Barney Frank, former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee

In the mind of Donald Trump the problems are just as simple: “Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them. Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them?” And, of course, the Trump2solution is just as simple: Make America Great Again! A great slogan. Build a wall, a great wall, a beautiful wall (Trump is the undisputed king of adjectives!), and have Mexico pay for it! And, we will place a forty-five percent tariff on goods coming in from China!

The history of “great walls” is instructive. Hadrian’s Wall signaled the decline of the Roman Empire. The Great Wall of China was a failed attempt at border control. It never worked! The Berlin Wall and almost every other wall in history were built out of fear and most were symbolic of a culture in decline and retreat. But, history would only confuse the matter, wouldn’t it? Study the history of tariffs and the resulting trade wars that inevitably led to economic decline. A tariff on goods coming in from China or Mexico would raise the price of goods paid by Americans. It would be a tax on our own citizens. China’s response would be even more disastrous.

If you place your hand on a hot stove, you get burned. Don’t place your hand on a hot stove. Direct causation: stimulus and predictable response. Whether or not it was ever true, many Americans believe in a “good old days”,  when there were good guys and bad guys, simple problems and simple solutions (when we were great?), and the good guys always win. We were all winners then… right? Direct causation has great emotional appeal and both Trump and Sanders rely on this appeal.

Systemic causation recognizes that most problems are the result of a series of actions and interactions, or a dynamic system of continually moving and interactive parts. Solving systemic problems requires an understanding of the system and the patience to analyze and redesign that system. It requires a long-term view.

Take ISIS, for example: For Donald Trump, it is simple. “Muslims hate us! I’ll keep them out. And, I will rebuild our military so that it is so strong that no one will dare attack us. I will bomb the crap out of them!” For Bernie Sanders the solution is almost as simple. He essentially ignores the problem.

The reality of the situation in the Middle East is impossible to understand, or solve, if one assumes direct causation and fails to understand systemic causation. The problem is the result of a long history of religious division; of colonial powers occupying the Middle East and then creating country boundaries that met their needs more than the needs of the inhabitants of those countries. It is the result of failed education systems, a culture of personality-based governments, and no history of democratic governance. It is also the result of failing agriculture due to a deteriorating system of water supply. And, yes, ISIS is the result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and of the dismissal of the Iraqi armed forces that set adrift the best trained and most capable military leaders to seek some source of identity and occupation. It is a complex and systemic problem.

If you don’t understand the source of anger you cannot eliminate it. Bombing “the crap out of them” will kill many and create more anger and more recruits to terrorize the West. Neither Bernie Sanders, nor Donald Trump ever display any understanding of systemic causation or offer any way of addressing it. Why? Because delving into systemic causation is an emotional turn-off and they know their followers are responding to emotional, not rational, appeals.

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump suffer from the same leadership failure and both, in my opinion are, therefore, unsuited to be President.

 To Demonize or Unify

Donald Trump commits the leadership crime of appealing to the needs of the vulnerable by finding an imagined demon and pronouncing his ability to slay the dragon. In doing so he frightens the public more and creates greater demand for his own “white knight” solution. The demon is “stupid politicians,” Mexican immigrants who are rapists and drug dealers, and the Chinese government negotiators who are so much smarter than our politicians. And for Sanders it is no less simple: the billionaires and millionaires, the greedy Wall Street bankers who are destroying our economy. And, of course, Bernie proclaims that he will somehow put them in their place and make them pay. In both cases, they create a demonic class of people,  the “others”, and thereby create further division.

Joe McCarthy
Senator Joe McCarthy

It is the oldest leadership trick in the world. Hitler unified the German people by identifying the demon (the Jews) and promising to eliminate them, and the German people would some how feel better about themselves. History records a different outcome. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, like Castro and others, identified the demons as American capitalism and capitalists. Waging war against the capitalists did more to destroy their own economies than to solve any problem. We have played the game in our own country too many times. We attacked imaginary communists during the Joe McCarthy era of the ’50s, or those “liberals”, the demons of right wing talk radio.

The job of moral leadership is to unify followers to a higher, more noble purpose, and in so doing to create energy and effort that gives them the dignity of worthy purpose. What is the positive vision for which we are called upon to sacrifice? What is “the great” America to which we are to return? Is it the America of Father Knows Best? Is it the America that had no major economic competitor following World War II? Or, is it the America in which racial privilege was unchallenged by “political correctness?”

Both Trump and Sanders have been profiting from division rather than the pursuit of unity of people and purpose. Consequently, in my book, they are both disqualified.

Donald Trump and the “We” vs. “I”

The psychologically healthy individual promotes his or her team, the “We”, rather than continually seeking to promote the stature of him or herself. One of the clearly distinguishing feature of great companies that succeed over time, such as Toyota, is that the leader is never self-promoting. The leader is practicing “servant leadership” and his own success is only that of the team. Peter Drucker got it right:

“The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I’. And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say ‘I’. They don’t think ‘I’. They think ‘we’; they think ‘team’. They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit…. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.” Peter F. Drucker

If one does a word analysis of Donald Trump’s speeches they are burdensomely heavy with “I”, “Me” and “Mine.” One might ask, “But he is a great business leader, isn’t he?”

I have known many CEO’s and business executives. Most have not had the luxury of inheriting wealth and leading a privately held company, not accountable to stockholders or boards of directors. Certainly, Donald Trump has had some significant business success. But, he has also had dramatic failures, which in a public company, would have likely resulted in the Board of Directors replacing him. The lack of accountability leads to a sense of self-importance and a grandiose belief in one’s own powers.

Our government was very specifically and wisely designed by our Founding Fathers to prevent the dominance of one personality. It is a system guaranteed to teach humility. If one lacks humility entering the Oval Office, one will surely leave having achieved it.

Locus of Control and the Acceptance of Responsibility

When interviewing applicants for consulting positions, one of the conversations that proved most predictive of success was in response to the question “When have you failed and what did you learn from that failure?” If the candidate claimed never to have had a failure, they were about to fail their interview! Only losers have never failed, and winners have failed often and learned lessons along the way.

Michael Jordan“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  Michael Jordon

Anyone with any significant experience has failed or at least underperformed to their own expectations at some time. Julian B. Rotter develop the Rotter Scale to determine the degree to which one attributes the cause of events in one’s life to external events, or to one’s own actions or inactions. This “locus of control” may be internal or external and to a significant degree determines our ability to learn from life’s lessons.

When I worked in prison we administered the Rotter Scale to my young inmates. They tended to be extremely external in their understanding of the cause of events in their life. They always had an “other guy” story that explained why they ended up in prison. Somehow they were never responsible. On the other hand, successful entrepreneurs are highly internal, understand failure in terms of what they did or didn’t do, rather than pointing to the “other guys.” If events are always caused by the “other guys” then you learn nothing. If you feel responsible, you process feedback and get better.

Listen carefully to the candidates explain why things went wrong in their career or campaign. If, for example, there is misbehavior on the part of people attending their rallies – do they see anything they could have or should have done differently? Or, was it all the “other guys.”

Lessons for Business Leaders

You can draw your own lessons from the current melodrama. I will suggest a couple.

  • Seeking to implement culture change in organizations I have too often encountered the executive who has little patience for systems thinking, analysis or solutions. “Just tell them what to do! Just give them some training and they will know what to do!” That mind-set, the mind-set of direct causation, most often leads to failure. The culture of every organization is an interactive system, and to change that culture the system must be redesigned in a way that adapts to the external environment and creates internal alignment among business units and staff functions.

When you hire and promote managers, are you promoting system thinkers or self-assured believers in direct causation?

  • Do you promote leaders who are capable of instilling a unifying belief in an ennobling and common purpose? Or do you promote those who rely on slogans and finding blame in individuals.
  • How often do you or other leaders in your organization refer to “I”, “Me” versus “We?” It is a simplistic idea, but the truth is that sustainable progress is more likely to be made by those who promote that “We.”
  • Do your managers and employees tend to explain failures in terms of what they did or could have done? Or, do they blame the “other guys.” Why? Hire and promote internals, not externals!

7 thoughts on “Leadership Lessons from Donald Trump & Bernie Sanders

  1. A beautiful analysis. I applaud your use of current political events to highlight the importance and power of systems thinking. It is, of course, the best path to creating sustainable change.

    Perhaps you should treat us to your observations about the thinking and decision-making approach taken by the GOP’s most likely opponent–Mrs. Clinton.

  2. Larry, another thought-provoking analysis from you! I perceive that both Trump and Sanders followers feel the need for disruptive change, renaissance or rebirth in national vision and societal relationships. Neither side accepts the status quo, a Latin term meaning the mess we are in. The third option is probably in the continuous improvement, renewal or incremental change camp. Businesses – or any organization – have these three options also which in each case can consider direct causation or systemic complexity or a blend of all. Bible stories show ancient approaches to apocalyptic (relatively sudden) change and transformative (more gradual) change. Perhaps the presumptive change leaders’s core vision is an indicator or motivator for followers: belief in abundance or belief in scarcity; belief in common good/collaboration or belief in individual rights and capabilities; a short term view or a seventh-generation perspective; systems thinkers vs. single-factor causation; more fearful or more trusting about unknowns. As customers of leaders we followers are often faced with lesser of evils choices. We also have our own versions of a risk matrix and experience about failure, success, and lessons learned. I think that a significant risk in the USA these days is lack of broad civil conversation and deliberation about these matters in a kind of national ignorance and apathy attitude: I/We don’t know and I/we don’t care. I hope you get many comments.
    Larry Gebhardt, Pocatello, Idaho.

  3. Very good read, especially the analysis to explain why both candidates are so popular among their “believers”. So often the loyalty defies logic… the notion that the connection is emotional helps reconcile what’s been happening with both campaigns.

    I also enjoyed the brief explanation of the systemic causation behind the hostilities flowing so freely from the middle east. I do, though, find it interesting that you seemed to totally ignore some parts of the story that have nothing to do with Western actions. For instance, the deep attachment to medieval, fundamental religious and cultural beliefs that encourage oppression of certain individuals and deny basic human rights in the least, and justify barbaric practices in the worst case.

    I have always supported the notion that the middle east conflict is incredibly complicated and must be considered in light of many factors. I reject, though, a premise that does not hold hold terrorists accountable for the choices they make, or a culture responsible for the predictable consequences of the beliefs and practices it holds.

    I have never met a Christian who does not support the notion that the Crusades are a horrific example are fundamental religion and man’s lust for power going terribly wrong. Not saying such Christians don’t exist, just that the vast majority of Christians can find no defense to legitimize what happened during the Crusades. This often does not happen among those from the middle east. Instead, reasons are given for the barbaric behaviors of ISIS; reasons that are often used as justification. We cannot shift all the blame for the crimes of ISIS away from those who support that movement. The fact is, choose their beliefs and defy any description of civility accepted in present time.

  4. JIm, thanks for the comment.

    As to apply the analysis to Hillary Clinton: First, it isn’t so easy because her views are not as clearly transparent. One thing that people are responding to with Trump and Sanders is that they say exactly what they believe, whether or not it is misguided. Hillary, on the other hand, has so much experience, knowledge, and so many relationships with people and leaders that she definitely understands the systemic causes of ISIS, for example. That, however, makes it hard for her to state clear and simple solutions of the type that voters would like to hear.

    Just a thought.


  5. Larry, Thanks for the comment.

    I understand the perceived need for disruptive change… some sort of revolution or strong leader. But, is it fact based? The reality of our economy does not justify it. I would encourage you to listen to this morning’s Fareed Zakaria, “My Take.” I think he does an excellent job of putting it in perspective.

    Do we understand the facts of our economy, or are we just responding to the rhetoric that claim we are in a terrible mess. A couple facts:

    1. Since 2010 we have created 14 million new jobs.
    2. Unemployment is under 5% and the number of people filing jobless claims is the lowest it has been in 42 years!
    3. The Dow has more than doubled in the past seven years, one of the best performances ever under any president.
    4. Housing construction and auto sales are booming!
    5. Even wages are now rising at a good pace.

    One of the problems with how people feel is that they see their actual wages not increasing at a reasonable rate. However, their buying power has increased at a good rate. The price of gasoline, cars, televisions, computers, etc., have all either declined in price or remained relatively constant. One of the problems with Trump’s economic theory, if you can call it that, is that he would send the price of all things things soring. If you want to bring the manufactur of iPhones back to the U.S., be prepared to pay twice the amount for that iPhone.

    I don’t think one needs to accept the status quo. We should engage i n continuous improvement, rather than a revolution when that is likely to result in a far worse scenario.

    I agree with your comments, particularly the need to have civil discourse about these things. Maybe that is the one good outcome of the current political theater.


  6. Julie,

    I essentially agree with you. I didn’t cover every aspect of the systemic causes of the Middle East crisis because that would have required a full length book. And, I completely agree that the systemic causes can not or should not serve as a justification for barbaric behavior. Ultimately, everyone is accountable for their own behavior, even if they had bad parents, bad school, and bad luck!


  7. One fact remains a “constant force” and that is the “forces of history” is inevitable, a change in pure, uncontrolled capitalism is currently underway.

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