9 Terrible Leadership Lessons From Donald Trump

What sort of leadership role model is President Trump?

Posted Oct 18, 2019

As a psychologist, and a parent, I am always concerned about the lessons that young people learn from observing our nation’s and world’s leaders. Leaders who are ethical, honest, inspirational, and accomplish great things are positive role models. Leaders who are self-serving, dishonest, lack empathy and blame others for failure send a negative message to young people.

I’ve actually been thinking about the lessons that Donald Trump teaches young people for some time. Although I was vaguely aware of “the Donald” from news about his real estate dealings and seeing him on TV and in movie cameos, he first got my serious attention with his television show, The Apprentice. Students in my class seemed to be taken with the show and his catchphrase, “You’re fired!” Having never seen the show, I decided to watch it. As an organizational psychologist, I was worried about the message it was sending, and that led me to the first of the nine terrible lessons that Donald Trump has taught young people.

1. Competition and Elimination of Opponents Lead to Business Success. The reason I was concerned about my students watching The Apprentice was that it emphasized competition over collaboration, which ended in the elimination of team members. Although I understand that this was a competitive game show, I was concerned that it promoted lots of bad behaviors—finger-pointing, scapegoating, backstabbing—and ended with team members being fired for relatively minor problems/issues.

As Donald Trump became Presidential Candidate Trump, I learned more about him and started to find out about other bad lessons that he was imparting to our youth by virtue of his celebrity status and the amount of media attention he was getting.

2. Throw Money at Problems to Make Them Go Away. Presidential Candidate Trump allegedly paid off a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair so that it would not tarnish his image during the election campaign. This suggests that, rather than facing the consequences, wealthy individuals can get away with bad behavior and less fortunate people cannot.

3. Loyalty Is Overrated. If a subordinate disagrees with Trump, he/she is often fired. When investigations are underway, Trump’s associates and underlings take the criticism and blame. A good leader takes responsibility for the actions of team members (think of Harry Truman’s slogan “the buck stops here”).

4. Creating Enemies Can Solidify Your Support. A well-known psychological finding is that having a common “enemy” or “threat” can increase in-group solidarity. Donald Trump points out to his supporters a long list of enemies (e.g., Muslims, immigrants, political adversaries, etc.). But this “we-they” effect can fuel divisiveness—a critical problem in our country right now that is getting worse, not better.

5. You Can Lie Without Repercussions. This one is quite puzzling—and I’m an expert on deception. Where other presidents and government officials are condemned when they lie and often face the consequences, President Trump seems to get away with bald-faced lies with little pushback. At this point, there are so many lies that another obvious lie doesn’t get much notice. This sends the message to young people that it is okay to lie if you can get away with it.

6. Opinions Are Just as Good as Facts. When making decisions, President Trump often seems to go with his gut rather than relying on data. As a social scientist, one of the prime lessons that I try to teach students is that opinions and observations are biased (by your own experiences/orientation) and that good decision making should be based on objectively collected data. Trump also seems to eschew the recommendations of experts in favor of like-minded friends and relatives, who provide opinions.

7.  The Best Defense Is a Strong (Legal) Offense. In many ways, Donald Trump acts like a bully—belittling opponents or those who disagree with him, turning his supporters against his enemies, threatening people who criticize him with lawsuits. The fact that he so often gets away with this behavior sends a terrible message to our young people.

8. Others Are a Means to an End. Donald Trump has burned through more cabinet members and advisors than his predecessors and has a tendency to hire and then discard and disparage people. Good leaders value team members, support them and work to develop them and their capacity as team members and future leaders.

9. If You Are Famous/Powerful/Rich, You Can Get Away with Anything. I am almost quoting Donald Trump here. Philosopher and leadership scholar Terry Price talks about how power is associated with “exception-making”—believing, because of your status/power, that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you. This is the main reason why leaders willfully engage in unethical, and sometimes illegal, behaviors—believing that they are the exception.

So, if these are nine bad lessons from a powerful leader, what defines a good leader?

Good leaders:

1. Unify and Don’t Divide.

Good leaders do not create divisions in their constituents. 

2. Achieve Results, But Limit Collateral Damage. 

A good leader is effective, but not at the cost of hurting the well-being of followers, or harming the environment, or turning friends into foes.

3. Share the Leadership With Followers. 

They work with followers, consulting with them, caring for them, and developing their shared leadership capacity.

4. Leave the Team, Organization, or Nation Better Off Than They Found It.