The Leadership Tactics of Donald Trump

Is Trump a “good” or “bad” leader, and what are the implications?

Posted Mar 13, 2016

There is no doubt that the presidential campaign of Donald Trump has been out-of-the-ordinary.  His celebrity status, and outrageous statements, have allowed him to get an amazing amount of “free publicity,” and an inordinate share of press coverage.  He is using some very well-known political and psychological tactics in his run for the presidency.  The issue that we should all be concerned with is what are the costs associated with his campaign tactics, and what might be the outcomes.

Strong Leader Persona.  Trump portrays himself as a “tough guy” who can get what he wants using power, money, and connections.  This has great appeal to voters who feel that the U.S. has been “too soft” in dealing with international issues, such as terrorism, trade, immigration, etc.

Research on leadership shows that followers are attracted to a leader who represents the prototype of what the followers want in a leader, and someone who appears to be (to the particular follower/voter) a role model.  What qualities make a leader appear strong?  Confidence (Trump has no problem there), optimism (Trump promises to “make America great again”), and a sense of efficacy – a “can-do” attitude (again, no problem for Donald Trump).

The challenge for Trump is that much of his “tough guy” persona includes the threat of force (e.g., using military power), or what is known as coercive power.  The problem with coercive power is that it makes enemies and leads the targets of the power or threats to fight back.  Wise and effective leaders minimize the use of threats, but allow the capacity of power to speak for itself.  As President Obama said recently, “The U.S. is the most powerful nation on earth.  Period.” – displaying power, without using direct threats.

The We-They Effect.  Donald Trump’s main campaign strategy is the use of the we-they effect.  This is a powerful political tool that involves identifying out-groups (the “they”) who pose a threat to the in-group (the “we”).  Whether it is Mexico, which, Trump claims is flooding our borders with its criminal element, China, which poses a barrier to a healthy U.S. economy, or Muslims, who Trump views as potential terrorists, Trump characterizes them all as potential threats to the U.S.  Focusing on these menacing out-groups and the harm that Trump claims they are causing “us,” he unleashes the power of the we-they effect.  This causes in-group members (Trump’s supporters) to band more tightly together and become more loyal to their leader (Trump) who will protect them from these “enemies.”

The we-they effect is quite powerful and most politicians use it from time to time, most often in portraying the other political party as a threatening out-group. But, Donald Trump uses this strategy constantly.

The great dangers of wielding the we-they effect as a political tool is that it leads to prejudice against members of the out-groups, and it makes it very difficult when you later must cooperate with out-group members.  Imagine the future difficulty, for example, that President Donald Trump might have in negotiating with Mexican or Muslim leaders.  More immediately, Trump’s vilifying Muslims, or the recent political protesters, has led to in-group members lashing out and attacking the supposed “enemies.”

The Illusion of Efficacy.  Effective leadership is complex, and for many people, it is mysterious.  How exactly does a leader get things done?  Donald Trump is portrayed as an effective business leader, and he goes to great lengths to reinforce that image by talking about his leadership prowess (“I know how to get things done!”).  Moreover, Trump is quite clear that he believes his success as a business leader will make him an effective political leader. Because Donald Trump has no experience as a political leader, we must assume that there is no way to determine if he could be an effective political leader, so it is an illusion of efficacy. 

Research has demonstrated that Americans have a “Romance of Leadership.” We often put leaders on a pedestal and we see leaders as the primary cause of outcomes – positive or negative – tending to minimize the role that followers, the situation, and luck play in those outcomes.  Trump’s strategy is to rely on his business successes, and use those to argue that he will be an equally effective political leader, and his followers agree.

Good vs. Bad Leadership.  Being a “good” leader is more than just being effective and achieving goals.  A leader could win a war, but decimate his/her army and bankrupt the country.  The typical definition of a good leader involves doing the right things, but that is vague because who is to determine what the right things are?  But here are some things to consider when determining whether a leader is good or bad (as opposed to being merely effective):

A good leader achieves goals and:

Minimizes Collateral Damage.  The leader achieves goals but not placing an undue burden on followers, the economy, or the environment.  Sacrifices are often needed to achieve goals, but these must not be too extreme.

Does Not Gain at Others’ Expense.  The leader should not benefit more from the outcome than the followers.  Moreover, in achieving the goals, no one group or faction should have to suffer more than other groups.

Leaves Followers Better Off Than They Were.  This is the ultimate test: Are the followers, the collective, the country, better off because of the leader.

How do you think President Donald Trump would rate?

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