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What Trump Needs To Learn About Leadership

A self-assessed ‘stable genius’, Trump’s leadership style is controversial. Here’s what professors of leadership would have taught him, if he’d been their student

By  Joy Hunter

Fri Oct 30 2020


Love him or hate him, Trump’s presidency is a fascinating leadership case study. Over the last four years, he's seen huge staff turnover, has turned Twitter into the presidential mouthpiece, and consistently boasted about his business acumen—despite multiple bankruptcies and fraud.

Trump attended Wharton in 1968 and studied economics, a fact that he publicly name-dropped 52 times between June 2015 and 2018, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian. And in his own words, he’s “a genius, and a very stable genius at that”. 

But top leadership professors disagree. Here's what they'd teach Trump if he was their student.

1. There’s a difference between showmanship and leadership

There’s a difference between someone who can emerge as a leader and also act as one. Trump encapsulates that, thinks Urszula Lagowska, assistant professor of management and leadership at NEOMA business school. 

Divisive as he is, Trump is an undeniably skilled entertainer. From his argumentative debating style to his U-turns on foreign policy—threatening Kim Jong Un with ‘fire and fury’ then meeting him ceremoniously to pursue a peaceful resolution—the ex-reality TV star knows how to put on a show and engage his following.

A charismatic streak can be powerful. After all, you can’t be a leader without followers. “Trump has strengths in the way he is able to energize his public,” says Urszula. “He speaks to a certain group of Americans who keep supporting him through his mandate. That’s pretty impressive.”

But the skills that have helped him into power may not help him stay in power. “Leaders, especially in politics, are often constrained by rules and regulations,” Urszula adds. “If you’re not knowledgeable about this, you may not be able to deliver on all of your promises.” 

Trump has also said that he likes to be unpredictable, which for Urszula is alarming. Without a clear common goal or set of values, how is anyone meant to carry out a leader’s vision? 


2. Lose the ego

Trump’s history as an entertainer underlines the idea that he pursued the presidency for the limelight. That attitude doesn’t make for a great leader. 

“I’d teach Trump the idea of humble leadership,” Urszula says. Recognize your limitations, rely on the advice of others, and give credit where credit is due.

“One thing that is prevalent in the discourse of leadership is the idea of a leader as a savior,” adds Pauline Fatien, an associate professor in critical management studies at the Grenoble Ecole De Management. "Especially in a time of crisis, we see leaders as the heroes with the answers.”

Relying on this idea can be problematic. Urszula says that there were issues with previous administrations ignoring certain groups, and Trump was able to tap into their legitimate concerns effectively.

But, as Pauline points out, "he then uses this framework to construct danger—for example with his rhetoric that foreigners are dangerous.” This rhetoric has increasingly polarized America, especially along the lines of race. 

Pauline explains that, though it may serve your ego to go along with the leader as savior, this ultimately misleads Trump’s followers with the idea that there are simple answers to complex problems. They are reliant on him to provide the solutions. 

“A good leader is one who tries to empower their followers and helps them believe they are part of the solution,” says Pauline. 

READ: Five Types Of Leadership And When To Use Them

3. Be reflexive 

Urzsula believes effective leadership requires three elements: the leader, the follower, and the common goal. Failing to recognize your limitations, going after the limelight, and shifting your goals with unpredictable behavior all put this effectiveness at risk. 

Pauline suggests a framework of the leader-as-philosopher, one who constantly asks themselves whose interests should be considered with every decision, and why. 

In her leadership development classes, Pauling teaches students how to listen. By inviting followers to give suggestions and reflect on how they can be part of the solution, leaders can help develop empathy, and an understanding of the complexity of the problems they face.

“Instead of reducing communication to a one-way relationship where the leader gives the answers, I remind my students that the best communication is built on a two-way, equal relationship,” Pauline explains.


4. The presidency can’t be led like a business 

Trump is a businessman, but does it work to treat the management of the White House as a CEO would treat the management of their company? 

Ursula points out that there is a long history of politics and business crossing over before Trump. 

“It can be successful,” she says, citing the example of businessman-turned-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. “He introduced the idea of data-based governance to the municipality, which helped reduce the crime rate.”

But Pauline of Grenoble stresses the distinction between the two kinds of leadership. “In politics, you’re not talking about employees, you’re talking about citizens,” she says. With an approach of me-first management that looks out for his follower base, Trump has failed to provide representative leadership to the diverse populace of America.

As Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer told CNBC: “If a corporate leader tried to do what Trump does, he would probably get fired.”

It seems if he does go into a second term, Trump still has a lot to learn.

BB Insights examines the latest news and trends from the business world, drawing on the expertise of leading faculty members at the world's best business schools.

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