Leadership in Trump Era

There’s a self-obsessed, habitual liar residing in the Oval Office. Officially dedicated to the duty of his role, many feel they are witnessing his real mission in real time: the enrichment of him and his family using a continuous cycle of distraction, diversion and manipulative reprogramming. As an Australian observer who resided in the U.S. during most of the Clinton administration, I am one of those people. Just like the rest of the world, I am currently watching Donald Trump on television, shielded by a small band of spin doctors, sycophants, and henchmen. He seems to float on a Teflon-coated cloud of nearly but not quite “gotcha” moments. He is continuously trailed by infuriating whispers that ultimately fail to knock him down to Earth, where people are held accountable for their realities. Impervious and often described as unprecedented, could it be that Trump is nothing more than the ultimate proof of what civilized society has single-mindedly strived towards in its pursuit of defined leadership?

My interest in U.S. politics casually began in the 90s as I undertook my policy studies undergraduate degree at Georgia State University. Shortly after George W. Bush took office, I departed America for the U.K. where I spent more than a decade as a policy advisor in central government and policing.

As with many, and in light of what feels like daily scandals within the Trump administration, my political interest has grown to an obsession in recent years. I’ve been observing Donald Trump, the man and President, since 2015. Previously I’d seen an episode or two of The Apprentice but the format of the show seemed cruel and sensationalist (like forcing the losing team to sleep outside in rain-soaked tents while the winners enjoyed 5-star luxury). It meant that I couldn’t take the show, or Donald Trump the businessman, seriously. For me, “The Donald” was just another American TV personality in a sea of Hollywood A-listers, wannabes, and has-beens. I never considered him to be any kind of leader. I didn’t even know he’d purportedly written books, owned a casino or a “university”.

However, Donald Trump, Presidential candidate, swiftly caught my interest as I was conducting a master’s degree research study into police officer morale. Something unexpected came up in the study, regarding police leadership, which I subsequently wrote about in research and operational papers. At work, the proverbial police leader was known to build almost their entire career on the perception of three highly regarded leadership principles (motivation, setting an example and emotional intelligence). My research discovered that all was not what it seemed in that respect. Overwhelmingly, potential police leaders spent less time focusing on police officer duties (like investigation, arrest and detention of suspects) and more time gathering the portfolio of training, seminars and non-operational projects necessary to stand out from the crowd of rank-and-file. In order to rise to the top of policing, an individual had to focus on his or her career needs rather than the needs of the community, and the effects of self-interest were being felt by those reporting to them. Police leaders were often political, image-obsessed and lacking personal accountability.

These days it seems that every household name is considered a leader. Sports hero. Politician. Reality TV star. Sometimes for good reason but often for reasons that carry little to no substantive value. Once I began focusing on Donald Trump a pattern emerged that I believe puts the entire concept of leadership into question.

The human yearning to be leader spans over two thousand years as can be found in Sanskrit lists of leadership traits (circa 600 BC). Amazon claims to have more than sixty thousand leadership books available for sale in the U.S., most of which are directives on how to become a leader.

Conversely, there are very few instructions on how to cater to, nurture,or follow a leader. We are living in the age of self-involvement where, if it’s not about me,what’s the point?

Everyone wants to be the leader because nobody wants to be the follower. Everyone is talking, but nobody is listening. This is a key problem with the concept of leadership. It majors in the impossible. It cultivates narcissism and hypocrisy by normalizing unattainable goals and forcing ambitious people to focus on their own needs and manufacture a perceived image that may be true occasionally but is usually a con.

There is no single universally recognized list of leadership principles, and, depending on the forum, the number of principles in any given list can range from five to twenty. The three principles that always appear in some form are also those commonly attributed to police leaders.

  1. Motivation – A desire for success which is strong enough to elicit the actions that make success happen.

  2. Setting an example – Personifying the expectation placed upon others, in a manner which appears authentic.

  3. Emotional intelligence – Understanding what makes people tick and moulding one’s self to satisfy perceptions and influence thinking.

In some forums, these principles are subdivided to appear alongside other principles. For example, “leading by example” may appear separate from “authenticity”; “emotional intelligence” from “influencing others.” This helps to fill up pages and sell voluminous books but is generally overkill. In fact, the perception that someone has achieved leadership status can be simplified by language:

  1. They knew what they wanted and went for it.

  2. They convinced others that they were the right person to get it.

  3. They convinced others that their success in achieving it would be great for everyone.

Once the onion is truly peeled it’s easy to see how so many sociopathic and narcissistic people end up in leadership positions. It’s surprising to think it took so long in these times for a person like Donald Trump to become President.

Think back to the Trump for President campaign. Was there a single campaign rally in which Trump didn’t loudly bellow to the audience that he was the obvious choice because he was going to drain the swamp, was a winner, the only one who can fix it, and that his success would make America great again.

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned Trump’s many published business books as well as his casino and university enterprises. Feel free to throw into this mix the numerous Trump-branded buildings, resorts, and consumer products around the world. Prior to any close inspection, Donald Trump has amassed a tremendous wealth and professional success, truly earning him the title of World Business Leader. If he had not been elected President people would be forgiven for thinking he is 100% of the image and hype he worked his entire life to protect. Thanks to public disclosure laws, insider leaks, publicized court cases and media-driven exposés, it’s beginning to surface that Trump’s books were written by other people, his casino went broke, and the university didn’t really teach. We now know he’s suffered half a dozen bankruptcies, was often bailed out by his father, and does not own most Trump-branded real estate around the world. The Donald Trump idolized by Apprentice viewers is a perception that sometimes, but often doesn’t, equals reality. The real Donald Trump is somewhere beneath numerous layers of perception, marketing, sleight of hand… and scandal. The naked eye view of Trump is based on self-focus, plus the cultivation and fierce protection of an image.

In a similar theme, the recent partisan battle relating to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is also being referred to as unprecedented. It might never have happened to Judge Kavanaugh before, but the incident is certainly not new from a leadership perspective. On the contrary, it’s actually common for ordinary people to stumble into a similar issue of leadership privilege based on image perception rather than substance.

Kavanaugh could easily have been the 17-year-old who blacked out from excessive drinking and ultimately crossed the line, leaving 15-year-old Christine Blasey Ford traumatized for decades. Perhaps his actions weren’t the manifest evil his critics declare, but instead a moment of reckless, immature, drunken sense of privilege. He may have subsequently followed his faith, fathered two daughters and settled into successful adulthood. Taking the respect and privilege he enjoys for granted, oblivious to the damage he caused along the way. Outraged when his prized image and sense of privilege is ultimately threatened.

Think of the typical workplace and how complaints are often handled. Accusing a leader, particularly a senior leader, of wrongdoing generally results in similar outrage and counter-accusation. It’s even likely the employer will not fully investigate the complaint against the leader and will instead go on a fishing expedition to find something wrong with the accuser.

The reason? Most leaders in today’s social framework survive on image and power rather than substance. The primary goal of these leaders is to protect their reputations, form alliances and influence perceptions. Today’s superficial, self-involved, image-led, oversimplified representations of personal success cater to individuals who want a quick fix with minimal effort. The rest of us are generally too busy to pay attention to whether the purported leaders around us are genuinely leading the pursuit of something substantively valuable to the greater good. We are also too eager to hand responsibility over to someone else, and will choose to see virtue where none exists. Donald Trump is a symptom of these phenomena, but he is not the only one to slip through the cracks. He is merely the most recognisable right now.

Society’s tendency to affix a leadership label without first peeling the onion makes it easy for the wrong person to become a recognized leader. Someone whose only heartfelt ambition is to be wealthy and powerful is far more likely to be corrupt and abusive. They lie to themselves and to others, and when the lie goes undetected it becomes a truth that must be protected to safeguard the leadership privilege.

Let me just take a moment to say that I don’t blame Donald Trump or people like him. It’s not his fault that admiration and idolization based on substantive merit requires unviable degrees of virtue and personal effort.

This is not to say that virtuous leaders don’t exist. Far from it. There are thousands, perhaps millions of people in society at this very moment, putting others first, leading groups to safety, sacrificing comforts to make the world a better place. They are busy leading and taking full responsibility for their realities while others are taking the glory of leadership privilege for their own. There are also incidental leaders in the world who spend moments achieving the substantive qualities of leadership, before they resume their natural self. In order for leadership to be a permanent achievement, a person would need to put their own needs and desires aside, which would immediately disqualify them from any hopes of achieving privilege and public acclaim.

Perhaps the problem is that leadership is too often depicted as standing out from the crowd. As admirable as the phrase sounds, I think it fundamentally conflicts with the universal leadership assumption of having given service to others. The term leader immediately undermines itself, but if placed into a new context it can prevail.

For example, imagine leadership as a gravitational pull towards others, rather than a slogan of status or privilege. A world in which gravity pulls the best and brightest closer together is a world where Donald Trump can never become President. Unless, further beneath the layers yet to be peeled of the onion, lies the core of a man who is willing to set his own desires aside for the benefit of others. Is there anything in Donald’s past that tells us we haven’t yet reached such a core?