Donald Trump is a study in what not to do if you strive to be an effective and ethical leader. He is a twisted amalgam of every bad boss, shitty parent, and megalomaniacal tyrant throughout history.
We can point to his appalling public speaking ability, his poor communication skills, his shocking lack of intelligence, his cowardice, his petty and spiteful nature, and say, “This is precisely what to avoid in a leader.” And yet, here we are.
It is difficult to explain to his admirers that Trump as a leader is a fabrication. At this moment in time, he is clearly victorious. What they do not understand is that the story is not over. In the not-so-distant future, his rise and fall will be a parable. He is a loud pop in the dead of night from a fizzing, sputtering bottle rocket lit by a petulant child, and when the morning comes it will register as a vague reminder to teach our children not to play with fire.
If your business is leadership, the arrival of Donald Trump to the political stage has been eye-opening. It’s a bit like watching someone who’s never really played cards before win the World Series of Poker. We understand that this sort of thing can theoretically happen. We even understand, as we watch it unfold, how and why it’s happening. This novice card player doesn’t really understand the rules (nor does he care about learning the rules) so he plays however he likes without regard to strategy or common sense. To make matters worse the people officiating the game seem perfectly willing to accommodate this novice player due to the very fact that he is a novice, so the rules keep changing in his favor as the game progresses (or deteriorates).
In the case of Donald Trump’s rise to power, it’s interesting to watch the unlikely theory play out, but this is not a game. This—leadership in general and leadership of the most powerful country in the world in particular—is rather serious business. Moreover, his success is not the result of dumb luck. Not entirely anyway. We understand how it’s happening because the tools he and his enablers employ are not new. In fact, they are quite common and shopworn, which makes what’s happening right now even more remarkable. Below are just a few tools that are used with some frequency by the incoming leadership team for the U.S. executive office.
All of these can be effective leadership tools and require little skill or intelligence. Does the use of these tools mean Donald Trump is a good leader? Yes, in terms of getting short-term results. He will soon be president of the United States of America and has created a population of impassioned followers numbering in the millions. What he’s been doing works.
But there are four things we know about these kind of tools. One, their use is unethical. Two, they are used to realize unethical results. Three, those results are often (but not always) short-lived. And four, for the leaders who use these tools things rarely end well.
Whether it’s a company or a country, when the work actually needs to get done and those leaders are confronted with the cold light of day, things start to crumble. Self-serving objectives do not keep the lights on. Then the leader either abandons his post or the people eventually rise up. If, after an uprising, the leader still does not abandon or abdicate his position, his response is suppression and oppression and all the violence that they entail. This is our greatest fear, but we possess the vaccine and antidote, which is ethical and effective leadership. And plenty of it.
This is the counter to bad leadership. Good people stand up and become effective leaders. The bad news is the tools of the unethical leader work. The good news is they are not sustainable and they will not hold up to a rise in good and ethical leaders.
Ultimately, Donald Trump is destined to be the cartoonish totem in a cautionary tale warning us all against the temptations of greed and egotism. A leader who rose to power on a gray cloud of deception and sour wind of unethical behavior. It is a tale whose story arc is still rising for the antagonist, but we know how it ends. We know this story, and one day we will be able to use it as a lesson. We will point to it and say, “This! This is why good wins. This is why you don’t play with fire.”