Leadership Lessons from Donald Trump

How should a President lead?

Posted Oct 28, 2018

The presidency of Donald Trump has been unique in the modern history of the U.S., to say the least.  Trump’s unorthodox strategies, his thin skin and harsh attacks on his critics (some would call it “bullying”), and his impulsivity, offer important lessons for leaders if we combine his tactics with research on what makes leaders successful and unsuccessful.

First, we have to distinguish between obtaining a leadership position, and actually being successful in a leadership position.  The factors that get you into a leadership position are somewhat different than those that make you an effective leader. Look around at top-level leaders and they are predominantly White, male, and confident. These attributes helped Trump get elected. Being extroverted and seeming powerful also help in attaining leadership positions, again, Trump benefits. No surprises, but here’s where it gets interesting.

Research on people’s “ideal” styles of leadership suggest that the majority of people’s ideal leader possesses intelligence, is hard-working, honest, and compassionate. Not surprisingly, these ideal leader qualities are those that are actually related to leader effectiveness. Trump doesn’t seem to be particularly strong in any of these areas.

However, a subset of people view “strongman” leaders – those who are pushy, manipulative, conceited, and selfish – as ideal leaders to follow. Possessing these leadership qualities is labeled “tyrannical leadership” (although that term may be too strong). President Trump fits the strongman, tyrannical prototype. These type of leaders may be initially successful, but over time, followers’ support may diminish, as the leader bullies and overreaches. However, a core of loyal followers will remain. This seems to fit the bill for President Trump.

A key element of effective leadership involves delegation of responsibilities to followers. This serves to both free up the leader to work on important projects, but also helps develop followers’ own leadership capacity. A truly good leader develops followers through giving them increased responsibilities and supporting their efforts. This is a cornerstone of transformational leadership.

President Trump uses more of the “sink or swim” type of leadership, what is referred to as “management-by-exception.” This type of leader allows followers to take on responsibilities, but only intervenes to correct poor performance. In fact, Trump seems to allow subordinates a lot of leeway, but if they get out of line, or disagree with him, “You’re fired!”

President Trump uses a whole host of psychological strategies to attract followers and keep them loyal. He is a master of using the well-known in-group, out-group bias. Singling out “enemies” who are used to solidify in-group support. Terrorists, immigrants, Muslims, and recently, Democrats, are identified by Trump as potential sources of threat to his in-group of followers. And, he has labeled the mainstream media as “enemies of the people.” Although this in-group, out-group bias builds support from Trump’s core followers, it makes it extremely difficult for the opposing groups to ever work constructively together. This causes ineffective leadership in the long run.

Importantly, Trump puts himself at the center of the nation’s leadership (“I alone can fix our problems”). This is authoritarian leadership, and generally not effective in the long run. The reality is that leadership, particularly of a nation, is complex and takes the leader working in concert with the inner circle, and with others. In the long run, top-down, authoritarian leadership is less effective than shared, team leadership.

So, what’s the bottom line? While Trump may have been able to accomplish short-term goals, in the long run, leadership research suggests that this is not going to lead to long-term effectiveness.

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Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2006). Transformational leadership (3rd ed.). New York: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.