How the new US President came to power and how he’s behaving now he’s in the role illustrate key leadership themes, says Nigel Nicholson
It’s virtually impossible to separate emotional reaction from analysis in discussions about Donald Trump. That’s what makes the case so important and interesting. It looks as if this is something quite new and different from the examples of leadership we have been used to in public life. In fact, it has ancient roots and illustrates some key leadership themes.
We are apt to be overwhelmed by character analysis because Trump is larger than life, charismatic (to some) and hugely visible as a personality. People say he is narcissistic. This is true, but that is not unusual in leaders. More important than the new POTUS’s traits is why they have been selected to succeed. What do his followers love about him?
The leadership formula I define in The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for seeing, being and doing – to be the right person, at the right place and time, doing the right thing – offers a way of thinking about both how people come into leadership positions and why they succeed or fail. In this case, a large enough segment of America yearned for the change of style and story that we are seeing.
Yes, Trump is a narcissist, but this is far from the whole story. He doesn’t just love himself. He believes that by the force of his will and whim he can do whatever he wants. Life has taught him this lesson, at the hard schooling of his father’s creed: be a winner, attack to defend, take charge, be confident and strong. Make others around you believe in your power.
Dominance and prestige: routes to power
Evolutionary biology shows that in social animals there are two routes to becoming top of the pecking order. One is dominance – the ability to subdue and control others, by means of tooth, claw and smarts. The other is prestige – being the one who is most trusted and seen as able to enable the group to cohere and achieve its potential (this is how wolves decide who will be top dog).
Trump is probably one of the most physically intimidating people ever to hold the office. Video clips show how he routinely yanks people toward him in handshakes and conveys dominance in greetings with his grip and touch. His handling of press conferences and other public displays all demonstrate the same instinct in overdrive.
He defeated his opponent, Hilary Clinton, not just by domineering – standing menacingly behind her on the podium while she was speaking – but, more crucially, by undermining her credibility on the second path, reputation and trustworthiness. He draws his own credibility from the adulation of the crowds, the supporters who thirstily drink in his vision of “Great America”.
It is striking that he was led to the role less by ideology than by the idea that someone with his powers (this is where the narcissism comes in) should aim to go as high as he can in whatever game he’s playing. Through various twists and triggers he plunged himself into the game of presidential politics. Maybe initially he did this as just another power play, but quickly found the logic of his dominance drives making the game become real.
The best way to think about his motives, style and actions from that point onwards is that Trump has decided that to be President means to be a king, no less. Consider the evidence:
- He is no politician – he excoriates them, even as they surround his podium with their hopeful upturned faces.
- He is no business man – he got fat off his dad’s cash and the facile charms of real-estate deal-making.
- He is no manager – his displays on The Apprentice TV show are a crude parody of real business decision-making.
- He has a court – he has infused the White House machine with elements of a family dynasty.
- He has a real palace – Trump Towers is a gilded simulacrum of the stuff of fairy tales.
- He speaks from a throne – this virtual seat is on top of Twitter Mountain, from where he dispenses commands via press briefings, tweets and executive orders – no tiresome collective decision-making.
- He claims the divine right of kings: the support of the Almighty did feature in his inauguration address and, beyond that, the next best thing, “The People” whose energy he still feeds upon at rock show rallies.
- He wants to be recognised by a real monarch – Theresa May was the first foreign leader to get her foot over the White House threshold because he can’t wait to gain in return a red-carpet encounter with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
What could possibly go wrong for Trump?
The lessons of history for leadership is that a) Leaders succeed until they fail and b) They fail by getting out of step with the challenges they face. So how does one keep in step? There are two paths: the agility path and the shaping path. The agility path means being ahead of the game and making the right moves. The shaping path means controlling the game itself.
Trump’s rhetoric is all about the latter, which is understandable. Great leaders have indeed changed the world. Most, however, run out of road before they have fulfilled their vision. Read your Shakespeare! The world obstructs them. Thatcher tried to go on transforming a Britain that had begun to yearn for peace and quiet. Mandela was super smart to walk away from the job rather than keep playing the shaping game. He understood that he was no longer the man for the times he had created.
For the shaping path to succeed, a leader needs:
1. A vision of the possible future you want to create
2. A correct assessment of the challenges, and
3. The ability to find and deploy the needed agents, tools and resources.
So what are the chances of the new POTUS against this analysis? Looking at each point in turn, the questions it raises are:
1. Is his vision a habitable future or rather a set of idealised images based upon whim and belief?
2. In his post-truth fake-news world where Fox News and Breitbart are on the dashboard, what uncomfortable truths about reality might trip him up?
3. Is his dominance strategy sufficient to blow down the barriers and opposition to his wishes? The American constitution is so laden with countervailing checks and balances that the road ahead will be increasingly bumpy. The first signs are already highly visible: his practised response to setbacks is to attack ever more vigorously.
The only other option is the Agility Path – to change one’s perspective and style to match the unfolding challenges of the times. Believe it or not, this is easier than the Shaping Path, but still beyond the reach of most leaders, who are displaced by newcomers who can achieve more effortless fit. Thus the lesson of history will surely unfold before our eyes. Quite quickly one suspects. He will succeed until he fails.