Emily Marsh

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Is there anything we can learn from Donald Trump's leadership style?

July 2, 2019

In many ways, Donald Trump goes against all the things we think a leader should be. Great leaders are careful communicators and think before they speak. Trump, on the other hand, can stir up global outrage with a single Tweet. Great leaders accept criticism, while Trump has a tendency to fight back. Great leaders are driven by what’s best for their team and the people they serve, while Trump is more driven by ego.

But is there a “good” side to the man leading the US? During his recent trip to the UK, he dazzled the Royal Family and seemed genuinely humbled in the presence of the Queen. At least on the surface, it appears the relations between the UK and the US are as strong as they’ve ever been.

Trump is in the unique position of having been a leader in both business and politics, so he must be doing something right. Right?

An authentic leader with a strong vision?

In a recent Forbes article, Sally Percy looked at Trump’s leadership style through the lens of the Institute of Leadership & Management’s Five Dimensions of Leadership: achievement, authenticity, collaboration, ownership and vision.

On the achievement side, it’s hard to argue with the accomplishments of a man who has gone from property tycoon to reality TV star to President of the United States. He’s also certainly authentic, in the sense that “he means what he says and he will say what he means, even if it is utterly unpalatable to the people who are listening to him”. Percy argues that we all have a pretty good idea of what his vision (flawed as it may be) is too.

When it comes to collaboration, Percy doesn’t give him the greatest of reviews, “Aside from his apparent friendship with Emmanuel Macron and his attempts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, his record as a collaborator is pretty poor.” On ownership, she posits that while he clearly takes ownership, he fails to let anyone else in and will even distance himself from people who don’t share his point of view. That’s not exactly the collaborative, open-minded approach you want in someone leading a business, let alone a country.

Confident and assertive?

One study from 2017 attempted to make some sense of Trump’s personality. Analysing data from biographical sources and media reports, researchers built a personality profile for Trump using the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC). Trump’s personality patterns were found to be “Ambitious/exploitative (a measure of narcissism) and Outgoing/impulsive infused with secondary features of the Dominant/controlling pattern and supplemented by a Dauntless/adventurous tendency.”

In short, they surmised that his strengths in a political leadership role “are his confident assertiveness and personal charisma”, while his shortcomings “are of a temperamental nature - impulsiveness and a lack of emotional restraint and self-discipline”.

There’s no denying Trump’s confidence and charisma. Unfortunately, this tends to tip too much over into arrogance. After all, we are talking about a man who once Tweeted, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest - and you all know it!”

While organisations need leaders who are confident and assertive, they also need leaders who are kind, sincere, and people-centric. Trump may not have cottoned on yet, but it is possible to be both.

A strong negotiator, perhaps?

What we can extract from Trump’s success in business is his ability to negotiate. To get deals through he would have had to work with a lot of people, make changes, and get things approved. And he may be a bit of a loose cannon, but he was always careful to make the right decisions with his business dealings.

As a leader in business, you need to be able to build relationships, manage different groups of people, and even mediate when necessary. This is, of course, negotiation. But there's negotiating your own way, no matter the consequences or who you tread on in the process. And then there's negotiating as a collaborator, listening to others' view points, and coming to the right conclusion not just for you, but for the entire team. These are the kind of leaders we need in our organisations.

A powerful motivator?

Perhaps Trump’s best trait is his ability to motivate and inspire people - at least that’s what he managed to do with his ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign. It was this that connected him with his many voters in the 2016 presidential election. People liked Trump's simple speaking style - even his, at times, brutal honesty. And you can imagine how people were motivated by his confident and aspirational speeches, using strong words like ‘winning’ and ‘incredible’ to get people to believe in him.

To be an effective leader in an organisation, you have to be able to motivate and inspire people. This doesn't always mean fancy slogans and rousing speeches - in fact, a quiet leadership style can be very powerful.

Trump may be in a position of great power, but that’s a very different thing to being an effective or even a good leader. Within Trump’s leadership there may be behaviours we respect: his authenticity, confidence, and hard work for example. There may be behaviours we admire: his ambition, his real ability to speak straight to the people, and the way that he can motivate a crowd, but what is the cost of these very ego-driven behaviours for the people who follow him?

So what can Trump teach us?

Who can predict what the long-term costs of having such an “exploitative, impulsive, controlling, and adventurous” leader will be on a country and its people. These may well be leadership behaviours we’ve seen in the past, but those times are over. Forward-thinking organisations, those who want to stay relevant in their marketplace for both their customers and top talent, can not be a safe place for this type of leadership to grow. Often the best way we learn something new is by taking the hard-way. With Trump in power and making his leadership very well known in all corners of the Earth, what can we take and learn from? What can we take and vow never to do ourselves?

Little book for the connected leader

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