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The Perils of Trump’s Autocratic Leadership Style

Research highlights the hazards of Trump’s leadership style.

Kane I. Lynch, used with permission.
Source: Kane I. Lynch, used with permission.

As a psychologist familiar with leadership research and theory, I believe that Donald Trump exhibits the characteristics of an autocratic leader.

Simply put, autocratic (authoritarian) leaders use, and often abuse, their coercive power to get people to do their bidding. They use their power to punish to force people to follow them. Rather than earning respect and loyalty, they demand it, believing they’re entitled to it by their position. They tend to make unilateral decisions instead of consulting with and listening to people with the expertise relevant to good decision-making.

Almost a century of leadership research tells us that autocratic leadership is an ineffective leadership style. One problem is that using threats or intimidation to foster loyalty often backfires. Superficially, you may have the loyalty and respect of your subordinates, but it is not the real thing, driven as it is by fear rather than true respect. This means that what your “loyal” subordinates say and do behind your back (or once they leave) may undermine you and your objectives.

You’re also likely to experience lots of subordinate turnover (quitting) because their loyalty wasn’t true, and because people have lower work satisfaction when working for autocratic leaders. The leaks and high turnover in the Trump administration are consistent with what I’d expect in an organization with an autocratic leader.

Coercive leadership strategies also fail when used with people or groups that have the power and position to resist. For example, Trump’s December 22, 2018 decision to shut down the US government to force Congress to provide $5.6 billion for a border wall has failed because congressional Democrats also have power and they used it to resist.

Another problem with Trump’s attempt to coerce Democrats into compliance is that coercive win-loss strategies create resentment and the desire for revenge. Because they destroy working relationships, they are inadvisable for long-term relationships requiring cooperation (such as the one between Congressional representatives and the President). When the goal is important, and the relationship is important, cooperative problem-solving and negotiation work best in the long run. Coercive leadership strategies also reduce how much the leader is liked, which reduces their referent power — that is, their ability to influence others because they are truly respected.

Another problem with autocratic leadership is that it lends itself to poor decision-making. When a decision is complex and important, it pays to consult and listen to people with relevant expertise. Yet autocratic leaders tend to make unilateral decisions. Experts on national security and immigration, for example, tell us that building a bigger and better wall at the US southern border will not seriously impact our immigration problems. Ultimately, Trump may be blamed for creating an unnecessarily divisive, costly, and stressful crisis. Consulting and listening, and making decisions after careful consideration of pros and cons, is also called for when decision acceptance is important as far as promoting or implementing a decision. Trump’s failure to do this could be another reason for the high turnover in his administration (see, for example, the departure of military leaders H.R. McMaster and James Mattis).

Trump’s insistence on the unquestioning loyalty of those in his administration is also a set-up for groupthink and consequent poor decision-making. Groupthink is the defective decision-making that occurs when a group censors opposing views and fails to thoroughly gather and consider relevant information to evaluate alternatives. It’s a potential hazard for leaders that surround themselves with yes-men and -women and in cohesive groups where members are ideologically similar and inclined to agree with one another.

Symptoms of groupthink include overestimation of the knowledge, power, and morality of the group, closed-mindedness, stereotyping competitors and enemies as too stupid or weak to prevent the success of their plan, and the requirement that members suppress opposing views (those that don’t are marginalized or terminated). We should be concerned that one of Trump’s criteria for choosing administration replacements (and news and information sources) appears to be a loyalty to him.

Leadership scholars say that effective leaders change their leadership based on the situation. Trump’s authoritarian style and intuitive decision-making may have worked sufficiently well when he was CEO of a company in which his power was absolute and he was experienced with the tasks at hand. But they haven’t translated well to the leadership context of the US presidency. He could benefit from learning more about issues, listening to credible sources, and relying less on his gut and those that flatter him.

The US system of government was designed, in part, to prevent an autocratic president. The framers of our Constitution intentionally balanced executive power with the powers of legislative and judicial branches of government. This has been core to American government. If Trump wants to be a more effective presidential leader, he won’t try to change the leadership context to fit his more authoritarian style; he will change his leadership style to fit our democratic leadership context.


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