When the leadership skills are missing in action: Exhibit Trump

When the leadership skills are missing in action: Exhibit Trump

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates a presidency in which a nation’s leader has ignored the hard-won insights of how to run a nation’s politics, and it shows. Oh yes, we’re talking here about Donald Trump, but there are probably others who might stop to observe this slow-motion car crash in the making.

Go to almost any book shop – especially one of those big, comprehensive ones in shopping malls, or even a small newsstand-style kiosk in the departure concourse of any airport – and a would-be reader will inevitably find a vast array of books on leadership in business. There will be insights into entrepreneurial leadership, organisational leadership, leadership in times of growing economic or technological turmoil and turbulence, business leadership drawing insights from the Dilbert, Snoopy or even Pogo comic strips, mathematical and analytical explorations of leadership, statistical modelling for business, and the newest computer software tools for management. There will be guides to business leadership drawn from classical Chinese and Japanese warriors cults, and probably even business leadership advice from theological perspectives – and perhaps even from biblical texts, although that latter possibility may still be an opportunity for a new author.

Increasingly, there are also audio books, DVDs, podcasts, TED talks, YouTube lessons, social media discussion groups, and even more for the would-be business titan. We practically drowning in such information. For business, that is.

But the scene – on those same bookstore shelves – is strikingly different for real, useful education for senior political leadership. There seem to be very few easy guides to success for such energies. Politicians will look long and hard for much of anything that is both new and useful, besides the biographies and autobiographies of famous, or sometimes infamous, politicians and national leaders. As a result, a wannabe leader sometimes falls back in desperation on those “lessons learned”-style books from hard-charging business leaders such as Jack Welch (or even Donald Trump) for inspirations and insights into the management and motivation of people and institutions within a political framework.

The real challenge, of course, is that business leadership and political leadership simply aren’t the same creatures. Crossover lessons can be deeply, even fatally, misleading to those who would automatically attempt to apply them. Yes, political leadership and business leadership both, obviously, require insight, perseverance, knowledge, an ability “to see around corners”, and a degree of decisiveness. At least at the top echelons, hopefully, while an ethical core is called for as well, business leadership is ultimately about getting the final word, and making it stick – up and down the organisational chart, from mailroom to boardroom. And then, after making a decision, enforcing it with the right mix of blandishments and punishments as tools whenever needed.

But beyond a huge pile of autobiographies and biographies of all those famous and infamous (mostly) men, for real guidance, politicians must go back to more enduring texts in an effort to find some core values and behaviours, if for no other reason than that human nature hasn’t changed very much at all over the past several thousand years. Writers like Plato (together with his mouthpiece, Socrates), Niccolò Machiavelli, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Max Weber, and the more contemporary Richard Neustadt – and maybe a few others – form a good starting list to describe what a politician must become to be a true leader.

More than 2000 years ago, in The Republic, Athenian philosopher Plato took up, in an analytical way, the problem of how to rule over men. (He had the history of years of political upheavals in early Athens until a hundred or so years before his own time as a cautionary tale to contemplate.) In this work, of course, he was no friend of democracy. Instead, he had argued that democracy was really the last step before the collapse into horrific misrule by the mob with all the disasters and destruction that eventually would bring.

Instead, for the preservation of society, he argued strenuously that a ruler must have wisdom and virtue – and be able to dispense justice with an understanding of the importance of the stability to be found in the rule of law. Such an experienced man as a leader would certainly get advice from a corps of elders who would draw upon their own experience, but there would be no fooling around with the silly and potentially dangerous business of ballots and free choice that would open the floodgates to appeals to the baser instincts. Accordingly, Plato’s ideas have also helped inform (and bolster) ideas about authoritarianism wherever it has arisen.

A millennium later, Machiavelli had had a long career as a diplomat and fixer for the Florentine Republic. This was at a time when Italy was a geographical expression that housed a half dozen-plus warring republics, duchies, papal states and mini-kingdoms, and the near-constant threat – or frequent reality – of invasions by French, Spanish and German (Holy Roman Empire) armies. Late in life, Machiavelli was arrested by a local cabal that overthrew the republic of his beloved Florence. Consequently, he suddenly had ample time to contemplate the nature of success as a political leader.

The resulting slender volume, The Prince, with its appreciation for the way the world really was, rather than some abstract sense of how things should be, gave rise to the idea of “real politic” as well as the adjective “Machiavellian” for the uses of duplicity in the pursuit of and holding of power. The writer himself was not, apparently, a proponent of such Machiavellianism. Instead, in his argument, he had asked the question of whether it was better (or more useful) for a ruler to instil fear of him or love for him among his subjects.

For Machiavelli, the answer, sadly, was an obvious one. While it would be a delight to be loved, better still to be both admired and feared, unfortunately, the path to a successful career in government leadership was more likely to require a measure of fear, in order to actually get accomplished. Without some fear on the table, the whole enterprise was likely to collapse into constant turmoil.

By Thomas Hobbes’ time, he had insisted on strong government (democratic or not didn’t much matter it seems) in order to avoid the collapse of civilisation into a world that would revert to a life that was, yet again, nasty, brutish and short for pretty much everyone. In opposition to that bleak view, some Enlightenment theorists leaned towards the better sides of human nature and the delights and harmonies of the state of nature. However, it took a pragmatic lawyer and revolutionary politician like James Madison in America – the man who crafted much of The Federalist Papers that became the long-form print-style version of the Twitter feed of its day in advocacy of a stronger national government for the new American republic and its still-draft US Constitution – to bring these contending ideas into a rough congruence.

Madison had famously written, in urging a sturdy government but bounded by laws, rules, and competing elements, that, If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But, just as important, his immediately preceding thought had been, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” It was from insights like those about the nature of humanity’s weaknesses that flowed the ideas for the separation of some powers and the sharing of others to make anything work between the different branches of a government. In short, this led to the famous “checks and balances,” the messy but necessary sine qua non of government.

By then, Adam Smith had added a recognition of the “invisible hand” of commerce as the driving force of a nation’s economy, seemingly despite most of the things a government – and its leadership – could do, save for the maintenance of good order and stability. And, of course, Karl Marx and his intellectual heirs would argue that the hidden machinery of the economic substrate would move things along, despite almost any efforts by disparate political leaders, save for those who could overturn the power relations between economic classes.

Meanwhile, of course, leaders like American President Abraham Lincoln had reinforced the idea that a political system (and implicitly its leadership) must be built upon the idea of a government of, by and for the people. This must be the ethical core of any government and what a leader must affirm and nurture.

By the end of the 19th century, German sociologist Max Weber had clearly identified a special version of leadership qualities, the charismatic leader. As Weber wrote,

[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.

He added, ominously, that,

Charismatic authority is often the most lasting of regimes because the leader is seen as infallible and any action against him will be seen as a crime against the state. Charismatic leaders eventually develop a cult of personality often not by their own doing… [P]ower legitimised on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.”

Weber may not have realised it at the time he wrote those words, but he had offered a blueprint for the leadership taking charge across much of the globe in the 20th century – from Nazi Germany to regimes throughout Latin America, Africa and even among the socialist regimes.

But if charismatic regimes had leaders who assumed the mantle of infallibility, democratic states needed to find a different avenue, while taking into consideration the understandings of human nature in the political realm, developed from Plato onwards. For America, and especially for modern presidents, Richard Neustadt, in his contemporary classic, Presidential Power, had attempted to figure out how a president must manoeuvre between the warring parties of Capitol Hill, a horde of interest groups, disgruntled voters, and pretty much everybody else, all without being able to tell everyone to do what he (or she) says without fail, as a head of a corporation or a general might do.

For Neustadt, the central paradox of a presidency, therefore, was that while all that formal power resides in the resident of the White House, the real authority was what he called “the power to persuade”, once they were elected. Charisma might help a bit in this, appeals to a better future, more equality, fairer justice (or fear) might be made, but it all came down to, as President Harry Truman had reportedly said of his real job,

I sit here all day long in the White House, trying to convince some damned fool to do what he should have had the sense to do in the first place.”

But a president without an ethical core, a set of values, an appreciation for tradition, or an ability to inspire people to rally to a cause beyond themselves, is a president – just like the Donald Trump we now see – doomed to founder without moorings. Instead, the current president has elected to try to rule by a combination of charisma and fear, but without efforts to build bridges beyond his initial constituency.

Or, as Jennifer Rubin, the reliable politically conservative columnist in the Washington Post argued in her July 20th column,

Trump’s frustration over [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions’s refusal to violate ethical standards stands out as further evidence that for Trump, loyalty is everything. Ethical and legal boundaries do not register with him; indeed, his loyal underlings are expected to disregard such niceties to protect him. Nothing better underscores his unfitness for office. He did, after all, take an oath to faithfully execute the laws, not to use government lawyers to shield him from inquiry. That concept is foreign to Trump, who sees the FBI and Justice Department as his supplicants. ‘In an environment in which the President of the United States, in a single interview, expresses no confidence in the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, the special counsel, the acting FBI director, and the special counsel’s staff, and in which he makes clear that the FBI should be his personal force and that all of law enforcement should be about serving him, the [principal] protection is having people with backbone who are willing to do their jobs and stand up for one another in the elevation of their oaths of office over political survival,’ writes Benjamin Wittes [in Lawfare, also on 20 July].

No wonder Trump felt compelled to go after Comey and then special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Trump warned that Mueller would cross a red line if he strayed into investigation of Trump’s finances apart from Russia. If that is where the investigation leads, would Trump fire Mueller? That seemed to be the implication, although he did not say so directly. (This comes in the context of a Times report that Deutsche Bank will co-operate with Mueller’s requests for information on Trump’s finances; the bank reportedly has lent Trump and his family millions over the years.) Again, Trump openly plays the intimidation game, unaware or untroubled by the potential that this will be seen as part of a scheme of obstruction and interference in an ongoing investigation.”

Rubin concludes,

Trump is flailing, throwing mud in every direction in the vain hope that his words will disable his critics. However, his undisguised fury with investigators only gives weight to the accusation that he tried his best to stop — obstruct, that is — an investigation into his team’s web of connections to Russia…. Trump’s presidency is sinking into the quicksand of the Russia investigation. The more he decries his tormentors, the more support he provides for their investigation. Who can doubt that he was determined to stop the Russia investigation? In lashing out at prosecutors, he commits new acts of intimidation, vainly hoping to curtail their inquiry.”

And Rubin, along with various other usually conservative voices and commentators, had initially been willing to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt in his new presidency.

Thus it seems that at the heart of Trump’s problem, besides that ethical vacuum or core, is his evident failure to absorb the lessons of history and the thoughts of those who have contemplated the complex interrelationship between a leader and the led. Maybe he has read the “Cliff’s Notes” versions of business management texts, and yes, he has had a couple of them ghost written for his signature. But he has missed out on 2000-plus years of hard thinking about what makes a good, effective, wise leader. And this shows increasingly clearly. It is probably already too late to save his presidency from the future harsh judgements of history. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump holds a Channellock tool during a meeting with US company representatives and featuring products made in the United States, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 19 July 2017. President Trump has signed a presidential proclamation making this week ‘Made in America’ week. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS.


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