Donald Trump and the Essential Qualities of Leadership

Posted on Posted in Leadership, Lean Management

The purpose of presidential campaigns is to put on display the qualities of leadership of each candidate so we may choose among them. But what are those qualities we seek, why, and do they match the needs of the age in which we live? If we were a corporate search committee we would want to align the strategic challenges of the firm with the competencies of the candidates.

Leadership of TrumpThe Leadership of Trump

Thank you Donald, for presenting us with the reality TV show in which we can observe the clumsy absurdity of qualities that so obviously do not match the requirements of the office of President. But, why and what are those qualities essential in a President of the United States in this age.

“The Donald” has a mental model of the ideal leader, like General Patton, one who can make decisions quickly, is in complete control, and presents the “Mask of Command” (John Keegan) that appeals to the need for certainty and simplicity desired by those he seeks to lead in this age of complexity. He is the “barbarian” personality I describe in my book Barbarians to Bureaucrats, who succeeds in conquering in a time and in an organization over which he can exert complete control. Perhaps, if our goal is to fight wars and dominate our enemies, he might be a good choice. Hopefully, that is not our goal.

Let’s match the realities of the world that will face the next president and the qualities that will be required.

1. The Humility of Earned Wealth

Be clear that Donald Trump was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His father. Fred Trump, built the New York real-estate company that Donald inherited. Of course, he expanded it and built it into a world famous luxury brand. Donald has boisterously proclaimed that “I am really rich, I mean, REALLY rich!” In announcing his enormous wealth (8 billion, but every objective source says more like 2-3) during his campaign kick-off he made clear that he believes this reflects a skill or quality that would make him a great president. If that is true than why not elect Bill Gates (79 billion), Warren Buffet (72 billion), Michael Bloomberg (35 billion), or Mark Zuckerberg (33 billion). They all have the distinction of actually creating and building their companies from the bottom-up. And, they each have the self-confidence that comes from successfully pioneering a new market or technology. Trump did neither.

You have never heard any of the above mentioned billionaires proudly proclaim how rich they are. Why? Because those who begin from humble roots and build their companies tend to maintain a deep sense of humility. Only when one is born into wealth does one have a lingering doubt, an insecurity, that perhaps if my father had not handed it to me I would never have achieved this wealth. Hence the need for self-promotion that is speaking less to the outer audience than it is to the inner child.

Why does this matter for a presidential candidate? It matters because if a president does not come into power with a sense of humility, he will gain it soon enough through his over-assertion of authority, but the price to be paid will be paid by the American citizens. First, elect someone who is psychologically secure within his or her own skin and not one whose ego requires congratulatory stroking.

Jim Collins, in Good To Great, documents leaders who established and led great companies. He describes what he calls Level 5 Leadership:

We were surprised, shocked really, to discover the type of leadership required for turning a good company into a great one. Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make head-lines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy — these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar. (Collins, Good to Great, pp. 12–13.)

2. Playing Chess Before a Crowd of Football Fans

We love sports because we can see who is winning or losing and it is over in a few hours. At the end we can cheer or know that our team lost and look forward to the next game. This is the world to which the electorate is addicted, but the world of the U.S. Presidency is nothing like this. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq and “won” in short order, like the quick end of a baseball game, the President could feel the pride of victory. But, the reality was far less simple. While it is our habit to make quick judgments of victory or defeat, any apparent victory is always followed by a reaction, followed by another action, and another reaction – a spiral of unintended results. It is a world of chess, a much less entertaining spectator sport, and not football.

It seems that every day there is a popularity poll by some news network that tells us the President’s approval rating. The people are entertained by those ratings which are a reflection in the mirror, their own voice echoed back. But, like a skilled CEO who responds not only to the press reports of this quarter’s financial statement, but progress toward a long-term strategy, the president who best serves his or her country, must be looking toward the consequence of his or her actions over a ten year time frame. Which of our candidates has demonstrated strategic thinking, planning and execution, over a ten year period. Are they asked questions about strategy and the long-term view? Most likely not because the answers provide a much less entertaining spectacle than pre-packaged punch lines.

If you are a corporate CEO one of the most important things you do is manage investments, capital authorization. The best CEO’s do this with an understanding of the strategic implications of those investments. Why build a manufacturing plant in China or Brazil? Why invest in clean technologies? The answer is rarely in the short term gain, but the strategic positioning of the firm. Do our politicians do the same? Do they have an investment plan that will position the United States strategically ten or twenty years from now? What is that plan… I would like to ask each candidate.

3. World Citizenship on the Stage of Nationalism

One can be sure that when each of the candidates takes the stage for the opening debates they will display their American flag pin stuck in their lapel like a required tribal tattoo. It sickens me.

Patriotism is an assumed and essential value of a presidential candidate. Let me be clear: I think this is a great country. I voluntarily enlisted in the army (RA12704104, Sir!), volunteered to go to Vietnam from a post in Germany in 1965 and was there all of 1966. I deeply resent the likes of Dick Cheney who cleverly amassed six different deferments to avoid military service at the very same time I saw friends killed. His chest pounding patriotism and military zeal is a psychological displacement reaction to his own cowardice and insecurity. A leader with such insecurities is a great danger to any nation.

I do not want a president who looks forward to patriotic parades. I want a president who accepts the reality of the limits of American power and who accepts his or her role as a world citizen, playing, even providing leadership on a world stage. The American president spends the greatest amount of his time developing collaborative plans of action with other nations. This requires a spirit of cooperation and placing the needs of all humanity at the center of one’s value system.

Donald Trump not only managed to insult Mexican immigrants, but spent a great deal of time denouncing Ford’s intentions to build an auto assembly plant in Mexico. Of course, his own clothing brand is manufactured in China. Corporate CEO’s have a fiduciary responsibility to compete on a global stage. If Boeing wants to sell planes to China, the largest market for their planes, they must include a significant percent of content produced by Chinese suppliers or assembled in China. That is how global capitalism works.

Flag waving patriotism is a characteristic of humanity’s adolescence. A mindfulness of world citizenship is a characteristic of an age of maturity. Please, elect an adult.

4. The Capacity for Dialogue

The most obvious failure of President Obama has been his failure to engage in respectful mutual dialogue with those in Congress, both those of his own party and the Republicans. If the next president is to improve the net asset value of this country he or she must work with Congress to invest in infrastructure, education, scientific research and the stimulus of enterprise. He or she cannot do it alone. I fully realize that the Congress bears at least 50% of the blame for the failure of dialogue in Washington. However, that is little excuse for the President. He or she must have dinner, play golf, go to parties, or simply sit and listen in order to develop the trust, the social capital, that can then be invested in needed legislation. This is the job and to proclaim that this is “not your style” is a poor excuse.

Any sign of arrogance is an antecedent to failure, whether in the White House or the executive suite. It prevents dialogue. From the earliest days of the Jefferson-Hamilton debates this country has had deep ideological differences and we have only made progress through moderate compromise. George Washington was the facilitator in chief in the great divide between Jefferson and Hamilton and that is what we need in the White House today.

5. Fact Based Decisions versus the Fantasies of Ideology

This week Donald Trump spoke of the rapists coming over the border from Mexico. We must build a great wall to keep out the rapists and criminals they are “sending us!” Unfortunately, he had the facts completely wrong. He cited a research report that detailed that 80% of the women coming on foot across the border had been raped. The rapists were the enablers, those who had been paid to escort them across the dangerous terrain. Not the immigrants. Facts matter.

But on the stage of political theater ideological fantasies and fear mongering have taken precedent over facts. The facts of immigration (down from prior years), of education, investments, and other determinants of American progress must guide the positions and decisions of our political leaders, not ideological imaginings, and certainly not fear mongering.

Donald Trump appeals to the psychology of simplistic solutions. “Tell it like it is! Just build a wall! I’ll make America great again. All of our leaders in Washington our stupid, and I built a great company.” We all long for there to be simplistic solutions to give us certainty in a sea of complexity. But, that is a fools game in a world of shared power. It is an illusion that can only be sold like snake oil.

I believe that these five character traits will be key to the success of the next president. Certainly there are others. As you listen to the debates over the coming months, develop your own list of character traits or competencies and don’t be swayed by simplistic solutions, no matter how boisterously they are proclaimed.

4 thoughts on “Donald Trump and the Essential Qualities of Leadership

  1. Larry,
    Good post on leadership and several of the issues facing us from a political perspective. I agree the best leaders I have observed have a very high level of humility and true (rather than surface) concern for developing people. They are amazing people, unfortunately there are not enough of them. I think more people can operate that way, the sales of Jim Collin’s book certainly proved there is a general interest in being great. In many ways what needs to be done is simple. But it isn’t simple to do it. It requires patience, persistence and practice (as people learn how to lead more effectively). I’m not sure how many people are willing to work that hard to change.

  2. Great post! Trump’s involvement in politics has turned him from a mildly amusing caricature of a businessman to a mean-spirited, common bigot, first hounding President Obama about his birth certificate, and now making a hate speech about Mexicans.

    I am, however, puzzled by your Jim Collins quote. I fail to see what Lincoln and Socrates have in common, or what Patton and Caesar do. Lincoln was able to lead an organization, but I don’t see anything is what we know of Socrates — through Plato’s writings — that would qualify him to run a lemonade stand.

    I don’t see the parallel between Patton and Caesar either. Patton was a great general with no political skills.
    Julius Caesar, on the other hand, was a political genius as well as a great general, and did much to turn a good organization — the Roman Republic — into a great one — the Roman Empire. He is also credited with the idea of cutting up scrolls into pages and binding them into what books, and his account of the conquest of Gaul is the only document we have about the Gauls’ culture.

    Yes, geopolitics is more like chess than football, but it is much more complex than chess, because it is a game with more than two players, and you don’t have a board showing all of the current situation. It takes great effort to find out what the situation is, and, even then, you never have the whole story.

    Back in the 2008 campaign, I was immune to Obama’s charm, and felt his stump speeches were vacuous. But vacuous stump speeches are the way to get elected. Since then, I have been won over by his performance on the job, and I don’t blame him for failing to build a rapport with the congressional leadership. It takes two to tango, and they weren’t willing to. The Republican leadership did everything it could from day 1 to prevent him being successful. And, yes, maybe he is not the best at small talk and jokes, but the leadership of his own party should be adult enough to look past this.

  3. Nice job Larry. As an immigrant from South Africa 25 years ago, and coming from a place that arrogantly presumed a form of racial superiority, it’s not hard to recognize that Mr. Trump fits the same bill. His racist comments about Latino people diminish his very low credibility Few of the presidential candidates in this round from the right of the political spectrum can claim the humility mantel nor that of sticking to the truth. Presidential election politics in this country abound in ideological fantasies as you allude, and what really bothers me is that so many blindly believe the lies. And Mr. Trump dabbles with lies as he dabbles with destroying his own low credibility.

  4. Michel, thanks for the comment. I probably shouldn’t attempt to explain or defend what Jim Collins said, but I do get it. Patton and Caesar were both military, action oriented, command generals. They were both seeking to fit the mold of Alexander, the heroic leader who led his army in battle. Lincoln and Socrates were both introspective, thoughtful, deliberate leaders. I would put Obama in the latter category. It is an analogy and every analogy is useful only at a high level. I would not dissect it too much.

    Brian, thanks for your comment. I agree. Part of the problem is that the process is broken. Our campaigning, financing, electioneering process is well designed to produce the wrong results. It is a miracle that any sane person would want to submit themselves to it, and a double miracle that a good president might emerge.

Leave a Reply