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The good, the bad and the ugly: Key lessons from Trump’s leadership

9 min read

25 January 2017

I would like to use a great Spaghetti Western movie title as a structure for exploring Donald Trump's leadership strengths, risk areas and key lessons we can draw for leadership in business and more generally.

Let’s start in reverse order with the “ugly” side so we can get the negative key lessons out of the way.

The ugly

Trump has shown us all the pitfalls of bullying, intimidation and sexism by making a series of offensive blunders during his career. Many were earlier in his career, prior to his political life, and he has apologised for some of these. However, the lesson here is obvious – if you create a negative leadership shadow and alienate large groups of society, your leadership will be marred by ghosts of the past that will torment you endlessly.

The bad

His detractors will point to a myriad of bad qualities including narcissistic tendencies and his use of Twitter as a way to influence public opinion. While some of these criticisms are not without substance, I want to highlight a couple of limiting weaknesses that have the greatest ability to derail his leadership if he doesn’t address them.

Firstly, his leadership has been forceful in nature and his power stems from his wealth, deal-making ability and showmanship. One of the key lessons here is that while it”s fine for success in business, especially during the short term, but it becomes problematic when a leader has to exercise diplomacy and more indirect persuasion. I would therefore expect Trump to struggle in the White House during the early part of his presidency as he grapples with the complex and skilled art of coalition building and diplomacy. This will be exacerbated if his inner circle comprises only family members, rather than a group prepared to challenge his views and decisions.

Secondly, Trump has demonstrated an inflexible mindset when it comes to personal feedback and learning. The best leaders are typically open to and curious about others’ criticism and feedback and the impact of choices/decisions they make. They listen to stakeholders, learn from mistakes and adapt their leadership in response to changing circumstances. Some shifts in behaviour, particularly with regard to improved emotional control, were evident during the final stages of the presidential race, although he quickly reverted to his habitual “attack is the best form of defense” pattern when put under pressure by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

The good

Of course, what would a piece on key lessons be if Trump, like all leaders, didn’t have a few strengths. Firstly, Trump and his team delivered a powerful vision to the nation – “Make America Great Again” has broad appeal as it strikes a chord with all those who are proud to be American. But also those who want to regain the economic and political influence the country had in the past. Whilst many disagree with Trump’s plans on to achieve this vision, few would dispute the compelling nature of it.

To rebuild what is now a hugely divided society, Trump will need to move away from fear-based strategies and divisive rhetoric used during his campaign, to programmes of transformation that inspire hope, optimism and confidence. To fully appreciate the power of a unifying vision, let’s remember the powerful example provided by late South African president, Nelson Mandela, who unified the country with his vision of a “rainbow nation” for post-apartheid South Africa.

Att the end of it all, you’ve got to give it to Trump, he has this strength in spades. There are too few leaders today who have the courage to speak their mind on tough issues. Trump is almost too willing to enter the ‘hornets’ nest’ and highlight these issues, even if it does make him unpopular with many one of the key lessons bosses should take to heart as they can learn from this by speaking their minds more often. Unfortunately, we haven’t always seen this strength backed up by good judgement. In fact, we have seen many examples of this strength going into overdrive, coming across as arrogance and ‘shooting from the hip’ much like the bounty hunters did in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

There are more key lessons to be gleaned from Trump’s leadership

Although Trump divides public opinion and is either loathed or respected, he undeniably has what psychologists call “charisma”. Like any other leadership strength, it is only powerful in helping a leader and their organisation succeed if it is used in the right way and to achieve shared goals. When used with caution, charisma can be very powerfull; it helps the leader attract people to follow them and enables them to build strong relationships and influence employees and key stakeholders alike.

However, this is also a big watch out area for Trump as we have seen the ‘dark side’ of his charisma, which is clearly being used to advance personal interests as well as autocratic power. When it is used in these ways, it can undermine trust with followers and society at large, as followers start to see the leader is more interested in themselves than the success of the business. When this happens the leader loses support and influence, which are essential for effective leadership in any context.

Dealmaker and digital shaper

We all know Trump’s success has been largely on account of his extraordinary persuasion and deal-making abilities, which have been abundantly illustrated in the US version of The Apprentice and in building his business empire. In fact, he is rather proud of these strengths and his 1987 book was entitled Trump: The Art of the Deal.

Although Trump is clearly a ‘digital immigrant’ and was born well before the advent of digital technologies, he has embraced new technology and uses it to influence and shape events and decisions in ways that have surprised and amazed even his biggest critics another of the key lessons bosses should take on board.

His use of #Trumprulestwitter to persuade US car makers to invest in the US, rather than offshoring manufacturing to Mexico, has shown the remarkable power of this approach. This technique will doubtless be significantly curbed when he becomes President on account of both security and institutional decision constraints. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t continue to do deals and shape world events from his mobile in ways unimaginable to other world leaders.

Time will tell how these strengths and risks will play out domestically and on the international stage when he assumes the world’s most influential leadership role. The next four years will determine whether Trump can find a more prudent path between his fiery rhetoric and more considered policy to “Make America Great Again”. One thing is for certain, in making the transition from great entertainer and businessman, to politician and nation-builder, he will need to learn to serve others, be open-minded, inclusive, patient and considered. These are not qualities we have seen from Trump to date so the world waits with trepidation to see whether he has them up his sleeve.

James Brook is joint founder and MD at Strengths Partnership

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