Leadership Lessons from Donald Trump: Good, Bad, and Ugly
Really, we can learn from him.
Posted Jan 31, 2019
Americans look to our presidents to exemplify leadership. The same applies with President Donald J. Trump. It’s tempting for opponents to dismiss him as incapable of teaching us anything—they may fall into a reflexive reaction of saying, “Sure, we can learn what not to do.” But if we dig deeper and carefully consider what good leadership really requires, we can identify useful lessons from his administration.
Contemplating President Trump as a leader evokes a three-part formula that covers a lot of useful territory: Leaders need character, connection with people, and competence. Assessing our president on each of those leadership ingredients reveals a variety of wide-ranging lessons.
1. Character. For some, character is essential, and weak character makes a person clearly unfit for leadership.
Donald Trump's admirers see confidence, toughness, and resilience through decades of victories, setbacks, and remarkable rebounds. Meanwhile, his detractors see rudeness, meanness, vindictiveness, hypocrisy, and thin skin when he feels he’s being mistreated.
Supporters also see authenticity in a president who tells it like it is, saying whatever he feels like saying. On the other hand, he makes empty promises and lies routinely. Notwithstanding a few contrary examples like appointing conservative judges, his actions often do not match his words. Consider, for example, the President’s famous promise that Mexico would pay for a border wall and his insistence that he is tough on Russia. There is also a long list of unethical and perhaps illegal actions.
For some people, though, character matters less than personal connection.
2. Connection with People. A central question when appraising a president’s connection is, leader of whom? This question is answerable by determining which people the leader is trying to benefit, harm, and ignore. Citizens’ opinions also stem from whether they want their president to be the leader of the world, or just their own nation, or only subgroups such as a single political party, special interests, or particular social or demographic groups.
Connecting with people is made easier by charisma, that "it factor." People are attracted to it and vote for it, and leader wannabes wish they had more of it. However, charisma is complicated, because when one person perceives charm, another might see obnoxiousness, vileness, or selfishness.
Charisma is not bestowed at birth upon a very few lucky people. Anyone can act in ways that prompt others to see them as charismatic. One way is to communicate a powerful vision (MAGA, for example); contrast that with leaders who have no vision, or have one in their heads but don't convey it compellingly. Perceived charisma will go up for those who like the vision, and down for those who dislike it.
Charisma comes from other actions as well, all highly actionable: showing self-confidence and expressing confidence in followers; giving personal one-on-one attention (President Trump does that well when he wants to); talking optimistically about better futures; and being passionate about things followers care about. Trump's passion shows in anger that appeals to many.
President Trump would score high on charisma and connection for his supporters, but his scores would drop if he ignores or hurts groups he claims to care about. Compared to previous presidents, President Trump seems to connect well with some people and poorly with others. But so far, the connection he does have is enough, and present in enough of the right places, to get him elected and keep him in office.
3. Competence. A competent leader solves problems by…
- Spotting problems and opportunities. People complain about incompetent leaders with questions such as, “Can’t he see what’s happening?“ and “Why doesn’t she fix this?”
- Tackling the most important challenges head-on. What President Trump spends and doesn’t spend time on reveals his true priorities;
- Finding the best solutions, offering benefit to others and minimal harm;
- Implementing those solutions to good effect, allocating sufficient attention, energy, money, and other resources. It's hard to be competent by simply making pronouncements without taking successful action.
- Monitoring impacts and adjusts as needed. Some people in leadership positions give this step no attention whatsoever. "Stay the course" can be a useful motto and grit is a striking characteristic, but not without learning and adapting as you go.
We can assess President Trump’s competence by considering whether he understands the issues we care about most, is paying attention, and is doing things to make things better—and by examining the things he could be making worse.
I like a strong stock market and low unemployment, but it's important to understand which leaders deserve credit and which deserve less. Far more important considerations are that economies are multifaceted, and that the most visible short-term indicators don't tell us much about long-term impacts of a leader's decisions.
Mr. Trump occupies a leadership position of great power. But that’s very different from actually being an effective leader. The larger lesson is that successful and respect-worthy leadership requires character, connection, and competence. By working to ensure that all three elements are strong, leaders can enlist cooperation from others—including those “across the aisle”—to generate the positive, impactful, sustainable results that citizens have a right to expect.
Bateman, T.S. (2008) Leading for Results: Brief-but-Powerful Lessons from Katrina and Iraq. Organizational Dynamics, vol 37, pp. 301-312.