What Motivated Donald Trump’s Presidential Ambitions?

Why a billionaire sought the toughest job on earth.

Posted May 06, 2017

In a recent interview, President Trump stated that the job of U.S. President was more difficult than he had imagined. Shortly after the inauguration, Trump’s friend and radio talk show host, Howard Stern, mentioned that he had told Trump that he would regret his decision to take the job.

I am currently attending the Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Leadership Symposium in Greece and some recent research presented here gave me some insight into Donald Trump’s motivations to pursue the presidency.  So, why did he want to become the President of the United States?

First and foremost, Trump is a narcissist – perhaps on the extreme end of the scale. In fact, Trump can be best classified as a Grandiose Narcissist. Grandiose narcissism is a flamboyant, assertive, and interpersonally dominant style, characterized by an inflated sense of self, overconfidence in making decisions, and an inability to learn from mistakes.

Research shows that narcissists are over-represented in high-level leadership positions, which can be a problem in and of itself, but back to Trump.

There are 3 basic motivations that explain why people take on leadership positions:

1. Affective motivation (“I enjoy leading”). This is the motivation to lead simply because one enjoys leadership activities.

2. Calculative motivation (“What’s in it for me?”). This motivation to lead focuses on the rewards or personal gains one will achieve through leading.

3. Normative motivation (“Other people think I’d be an effective leader”). This involves pressure from others to pursue leadership positions.

Trump’s motivation to run for President may have been fueled by all three of these.  He professes to enjoy being in charge, and has for some time (affective motivation). His serious candidacy was spurred on by backers who encouraged him to run (normative motivation). And, there may also be calculative motivation, as his detractors claim – Trump and his family may reap financial benefits from his presidency.

How does Trump’s grandiose narcissism fuel his desire to be president?

Research suggests that grandiose narcissists seek leadership positions for a couple of prime reasons:

1. Self-Enhancement. Narcissists seek powerful leadership positions to prove their superiority and to enhance their image.

2. Basking in the Limelight. Throughout his adult life, Trump has sought media attention and the sheer amount of “free” coverage that he got certainly helped his campaign and the election.

So, the research on narcissism and motivation to lead explains Trump’s behavior fairly well. But what might cause Trump to eventually regret attaining the presidency? Well, Howard Stern may have said it best:

"I know something about Donald Trump, he really does want to be loved," Stern said. "He does want people to really love him. That drives him a lot. I think that he has a very sensitive ego and when you're president of the United States, people are going to be very very critical."

Donald Trump has a notoriously thin skin and although his narcissism causes a feeling of superiority, it is fragile and, in the end, he may regret his motivation to this high, and very visible and vulnerable, leadership position.

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Chan, K.Y., & Drasgow, F. (2001).  Toward a theory of individual differences and leadership: Understanding the motivation to lead. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 481-498.