Trump U – What I’m Learning – And You?


Reading for Leading has always been about “everyday leadership.”  Leadership knocks every day and calls to everyday people, who don’t just lead down, but up and across the hierarchies of life. I write today about a high-level leader but with this important proviso.  I am not writing about him primarily to argue about him and whether my assessments are true.  I am writing about President Trump because he is such a vivid example from which we can look in one direction – towards solid leadership theory/research – and in the other direction – at our personal leadership behaviors.*

Today, I open with the core of Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner’s (K&P) The Leadership Challenge.  K&P have just come out with an all-new 6th edition and have had their work tested through hundreds of thousands of surveys and research studies by hundreds of scholars.  In my class, I call the book our “bible,” because if you’re only going to have one leadership book, it should be this one.  They write about 4 characteristics and 5 practices.

Leadership Characteristics.  Four (4) characteristics have risen to the top from nearly a half million surveys that have asked “what characteristics do you look for in a leader, someone whom you would willingly follow?”  They are:  Honest, consistently #1.  Forward looking.  Inspiring.  Competent.  How do YOU do in these areas?  I score high on Honest and Forward-looking, while my growth areas are to be more Inspiring and Competent.

The President’s supporters would say he certainly inspired “his” people with a “forward looking vision.”  He tapped a deep desire people had to “make America great again,” and they resonated with his visions of “walls” and “tough trade agreements” that would bring us to that vision. Those on the left would argue that he is not forward but “backward looking” and that he espouses a vision that is highly uninspiring to many.  But you can’t say he hasn’t offered a vision that inspires people.

Trump clearly falls short of the mark with Honesty and Competence. His number of “4 Pinocchio’s” (a non-partisan measure of truthfulness of political statements) has broken every record in American politics by a moonshot.  He even refuses to accept hard documented truths like a crowd’s size.  Some who appreciate him would argue that “everyone lies in politics” and that “he’s being honest about the big things he said he would do.”  And as far as, Competence, they might argue he’s a highly competent business person who will become more competent as he learns on-the-job – the hardest job in the world.  So far, he’s made disastrous mistakes with the courts, media, and other countries.  One hopes he will learn, although admitting mistakes and seeking to grow do not seen to be hallmarks of his style.  Do you know what limits your honesty and what’s challenging your competence?

We can argue about how Mr. Trump measures up, but it’s valuable to be clear about these four measuring sticks that overwhelming majorities of people across the globe expect of those they will follow.  Measure your authority figures.  Measure yourself.

Leadership Practices.  K&P offer 5 practices.  You can measure how frequently you do them and practice getting better at them.  Today, I’ll touch on the one they elevate as first.  They call it “Modeling the Way.” This means two central things to the authors:  Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD) and talking-and-walking the primary values you hope to root in the culture.  I give Trump high marks on trying to DWYSYWD; low marks for success on them, although it’s early:  No wall. No NAFTA repeal. No “repeal and replace” of Obamacare.  Far from “draining the swamp,” Wall Street and billionaires are in charge; his family continues to exploit his public position for private gain, and his closest advisors appear to have misled the congress, the country and the intelligence community.  If you’re critical of Trump and/or were critical of Hilary for not being honest about the email server, then KNOW:  when YOU are in authority, people WATCH you like a hawk. Say what you want, but you better do what you say.

That leads into the second part of modeling the way: talking-and-walking the values.  What are the core values?  Here we have two things to look at: espoused values and what seem to be the practiced values.  I’m honestly not sure what values our president espouses.  I see his vision (next week’s topic): an economically booming, good-jobs, secure from “bad” people country.  Such communal basics speak to all of us and deeply inspire many.   But what are the values, the “how” that he speaks and espouses?  What’s “the way?”  He certainly doesn’t make a big deal about honesty or transparency, or trust (with staff or other countries), or kindness, or being inclusive; not about innovation, I don’t think; nor excellence; nor respect, e.g., for John McCain or Barack Obama.  These kinds of values propel the best companies and organizations I work with and that I read about. So, what are his espoused values? I’m guessing President Trump’s “how” is “America first.”  Our foreign policy is about getting ours – our security, our economic advantage, etc.  And I guess that he really values competition, or more accurately, values winning.

Then there’s the walk.  He certainly walks winning and America first (although realpolitik seems to be generating at least a little win-win thinking on his part).  The biggest failing, I believe, from a learning-about-leadership standpoint, however, are Trump’s unacknowledged values.  We ALL have both; we are all aspirational saints who can talk a good game, and we are self-centered sinners, no?  We all want to make America Great Again and/or Make America Stronger Together.  But we all – the innumerable “I’s” – also want to win the promotion over our neighbor, have sex and be loved, be in control, be right, be seen as handsome or beautiful, smart or athletic, rich (enough), etc.  When you look at Mr. Trump’s talk,  it’s America First, when you look at his walk, it seems to be “Donald First” (and his family and friends).  He’s a fighter and always a fighter for Donald.  I suspect he’s a narcissist, the kind written about by Stanford Business School’s Robert Sutton in The No Asshole Rule, or written about brilliantly by F. Scott Peck in People of the Lie.  I do not know him.  Nor am I a psychologist.  This is merely what I surmise from life and learning.

I know I will enrage Trump supporters with this.  Because Trump is a competitor, his supporters feel they are on his team, and will read me as a one-sided enemy.  (The other team of competitive liberals may condemn me as a traitor.) Trump the competitor (and Hilary especially with the “deplorables” word) has done a tremendous job of heightening tribalism – not only on the right but on the left as well.  If America was in a win-lose before, it’s all-out now.  So, at the risk of alienating anyone who’s not already feeling attacked…let me close:

We’re all a little bit narcissistic and it hurts our leadership.  I like to be right, respected, powerful, and sometimes it makes me a highly-limited leader – with my kids, wife, students, etc.  I think I’m listening, and I’m not. I think I’m giving credit but I’m taking more than my share.  I’m like a kid and wonder, “when do we get to the part about me?”  I think I’m accepting blame, but in my head or my sarcastic voice, I’m still defending myself.  If we can see and dislike Trump’s narcissism, we should double-down on rooting out our own, as we each model a way that others would want to follow, as we


Lead with our best self!

* I will take a couple different leadership lenses/thinkers over the next few weeks.  I am very open to any suggestions of other relevant thinkers that you think I should write about.  If you would like, you may certainly propose a guest column in this vein of two directions: how ideas and the president leading teaching us about us!