I have watched with some bemusement the internal leadership dynamics of the Trump presidency and White House. Not his politics - the country voted for that. But his leadership style. In fact, I suspect that it is his personal leadership style that will prove to be the most serious challenge in his presidency.
As a reader of biographies including many of world leaders, I am well aware that their personal quirks, often combined with very smart minds make them the leaders that they are or were. Those who know me know that I read everything I can on Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, whose leadership style combined with their personal idiosyncrasies made them the leaders that they were. Or, equally, Abraham Lincoln whose team of rivals made his presidency what it was through a tumultuous time in our history. That being said, I have some observations to make about the leadership style of President Trump that I believe could be his undoing. These issues go to the heart of great leadership.
One: The best leaders are crystal clear on their message.
Clarity is one of the fundamental secrets of good leadership. Clarity means that one has thought through their position and will articulate that position with simplicity. When Roosevelt insisted that the only way that World War Two would end was with unconditional surrender of the Axis powers he clarified the endgame and made all other options of negotiated surrender superfluous.
When President Trump contradicts himself in his messaging he confuses the people around him, makes them look like chumps (especially when he has send them out to defend a prior position) and opens himself up for unnecessary attack. And frankly, it looks amateurish and foolish. Further, it undermines his credibility with other leaders in the world who wonder which Trump they should believe. Continually surprising your own staff will alienate them and eventually erode their trust in their leader.
Two. The best leaders ensure that there is a common narrative that is true, defensible and clear so that the team is on the same page. This is the responsibility of a leader and of his communications team. They need to talk, they need to agree on the message and not be in a position where one or the other is going to contradict their messaging. Clearly this has not been happening in the White House and Sean Spicer and staff have been left out to dry numerous times by the president they are trying hard to serve.
While Saturday Night Live has pilloried Sean Spicer nicely, at the core of Sean's challenge is a leader who loves to sow confusion at the expense of his staff. Sean became ineffective, I would argue, because of the individual he was working for and his dysfunctional leadership style. If I were Sean I would be bitter at how my leader had treated me.
Three. The best leaders support their staff in public and air their issues in private. Whatever one thinks of Jeff Sessions, he is currently being undermined directly and publically by the one who appointed him to his leadership role. Good leaders do not undermine their own staff! This week President Trump called Sessions a "beleaguered A G." Of course if he is beleaguered it is the President who has created the situation for Sessions. This is not only highly unprofessional but it is also disrespectful, counter productive and demonstrated that the "boss does not have the staff's back."
I suspect that Sessions will choose to leave his role and I also predict that some others will choose to leave early because of their growing conviction that if this could happen to one of their team members it could just as easily happen to them. Of course, the President has also undermined others with whom he disagrees, which leads me to the next issue.
Four, the best leaders respect differences of opinion and actively solicit alternate points of view. The reason that Lincoln's Team of Rivals worked as well as it did was that he wanted differing points of view, respected them and insisted that his team worked together. This was also true of FDR whose team members did not always like one another but who chose to work together through the issues of the depression and the war.
This is not President Trump's modus operandi. Consider his ill advised early morning tweets. Almost all of them blast people or institutions that differ from his point of view including his own staff when he chooses (including other world leaders like the President of China, the leadership of Germany or the Mayor of London). While I believe there is huge bias in the news media against the president and all things conservative, I have come to the conclusion that "fake news" includes not only bias but anything that the President disagrees with. His issue with Sessions that has become so public is not with "fake news" but his unwillingness to allow Sessions to make a decision to recuse himself from the Russia inquiry. Ironically, Sessions is actively carrying out the President's policies even as the President undermines his authority and position.
Five. The best leaders take the blame in failure and give away the credit in success. One is hard pressed to find many evidences of this from President Trump. Failure, as a rule, is pinned on others, including members of his own staff and party while success seems to always come back to him.
I suspect that many great leaders are narcissists and it appears that the President fits that description pretty well. Yet at the core of great leadership is a leader who has gathered a first rate team around him or her and it is because of the team (working synergistically together toward common objectives under good leadership) that the best things happen. That is why the best leaders give the majority of the credit for success to their team. And, since the "buck stops at the President's desk" he/she shields the team from responsibility for failure - at least in public.
Does any of this matter? It actually does! Consider:
- The best staff will not agree to serve and may not stay when these leadership dysfunctions continue to exist. Sure there will always be people who want positions in the government but the best people may well stay away given what they see.
- These leadership dysfunctions are real downers for the staff that is working overtime to please their boss. It is demoralizing and it is leadership by fear and intimidation. In the long run it is not a healthy leadership paradigm.
- At some point trust between the leader and staff begins to erode when this leadership style is present. I have to suspect that other good leaders on the President's team are watching the issues with Jeff Sessions with great unease.
- Senior staff do not need the chaos created by a boss who changes his story or contradicts what they have said in good faith. How, for instance, does Mr. Tillerson lead the State Department when President Trump tweets messages contradictory to what Mr. Tillerson has said or creates situations that Mr. Tillerson must clean up with other world leaders.
- Thinking people around the world including many world leaders are watching Mr. Trump's leadership style with consternation. What should they believe? And why does it seem that he is more critical of his friends around the world than America's enemies (Russia?).
- If senior staff come to the conclusion that the President does not listen to them they may well ask "Why then am I here?" And leave.
- Most important of all, there are real issues that face our nation that are largely being ignored because of (I would argue) the leadership style of the President. Yes the media goes after Mr. Trump relentlessly but his style and some of the people around him feed the media beast with reason to be suspicious (unreported meetings, inaccurate or incomplete information). Whatever the organization, when there is dysfunctional leadership at the top the staff of the organization and most importantly the agenda of the organization is sabotaged.