Leadership & Trump: What can we learn?


What can we learn about leadership from Trump?

I could sit back and howl at those who elected Trump – or I could learn from it. I choose to learn. Keep reading if you’d also like to discover what you might learn too.

Heifetz (author of my favourite leadership framework) makes a clear distinction between the role of authority and bundle of expectations that are explicitly and implicitly a part of that role; and the act of exercising leadership.

He also defines exercising leadership as “the art of mobilising a group of people to do adaptive work for the greater good”. What we mean by “adaptive work” is to help people perceive, think and do things differently.

Has Trump ‘exercised leadership’?

I’d say ‘no’ because he:

  • Appealed to the existing fears and concerns of some people and set one group against another.
  • Encouraged people to continue down their existing line of thinking.
  • Emboldened divisions through scapegoating that has divided a country.

He fails the test because he hasn’t mobilised people to see things differently. He hasn’t reached out to those within the Democratic camp to see things differently either.  In doing so, I don’t believe he acted for the greater good. I have to say ‘believe’ because we can never truly know a person’s intention.

What was/is Trump’s intention?

To make himself greater or America great (again)?  His purpose is unclear. Others more qualified than me have labelled him a narcissist and opportunist. Is his grab for the Presidency a grab for personal gain or because he genuinely believes the USA needs a real change? Does he really care about those who elected him? Will he be their champion as he makes decisions over the next four years?

We will not know for a while because Donald J Trump has never been in the context of being President before. I could say the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour (and that is where I would place my money if I had to place a bet) – but Trump has never before sat in that chair with the responsibilities that face him now.

Will the essential character of Donald J Trump change?

I have observed people I have coached apparently change their essential nature – in brushes with death. But if Trump is a narcissist (which seems likely) I don’t expect this defining characteristic to change.  Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is usually a longer term trait. Those around him will have to learn how to manage around him – and many will probably leave as they are unable to cope with the controlling, exploitive and un-empathetic ways that are part and parcel of a NPD.

Will Trump begin to lead adaptive change?

The definition of leadership above requires it to be exercised for the greater good. Placing a narcissist into the framework suggests that the answer must be “No – unless his personal interests coincide with the greater good”. And that is conceivable on a good day but unlikely to remain consistent over a four-year timeframe.

However, Trump has started ‘letting down’ the expectations he created in those who supported him and this may lead to adaptive change. Referring back to the distinction between authority and exercising leadership mentioned above, ‘letting down expectations’ is what occurs as those exercising leadership ‘hand the work back’ to those who are also both the problem and the solution. Trump has stepped back from promises of mass deportation of illegal immigrants. He has said that he now thinks some parts of Obama care are worth preserving. Maybe this is the beginning of leading some adaptive change within his constituency – or maybe it is the continuing thread of opportunism and ‘truthiness’ – “truth that comes from the gut rather than facts” – and he lied all along.

Trump from a systems thinking perspective

One more thought that provides solace as I reflect on Trump as President. It’s going to be really interesting to observe how much the ‘machinery of government’  or the system, shapes Trump and how much he is able to shape the system. In my work, changing the system is a type of transformational change that is very challenging and demands focussed intention. How much will the system share Trump? It was Edwards W Demming who suggested that up to 80% of behaviour is shaped by the system rather than the individual. Will it really matter who is President?

What can we learn and apply to our own leadership?

Three things I have taken that I can learn from Trump:

  1. His self-confidence to “give it go” – I love that but I am not sure I want the personality disorder that goes with it!
  2. His ability to diagnose the system. He observed patterns of behaviour, and despite previous membership of the Democrats, stood for the Republicans. Trump understood the predictability of the ‘camps’ and I believe ‘played on it’. He listened to the people who had the most to lose. He responded to that – not in a way that enabled adaptive work – but I admire the apparent observation and strategic thinking behind his action. I say apparent because there is still a part of me that wonders if it was just intuitive opportunism.
  3. Trump remained focussed on his purpose. I do wonder if that purpose is to make America Great Again. I recognise it is him saying it I wonder if the purpose is to simply be President. Time may tell.

A call to action for us all

As the world tilts to the right, it is beholden on us with different values sets to listen to the needs of all and integrate them into the way forward. Name calling and belittling will not move us forward.

We must listen to those who have lost so much and have not been listened to. The divide between haves and have nots is not yet quite as great in Australia as it is in USA. But let’s learn from the American experience. I am very concerned about what the future holds.

Let’s look for the common ground. We don’t have to agree with each other, but at least let’s listen to understand.