As I watch the chaos surrounding the Trump Administration, I started to see similarities with organizations and top executives I have worked with in the past. There are many articles about CEOs who are successful innovators that build unique approaches to business and their personality traits. Listening to the daily news, I get frustrated with many of the current administration’s activities, and then I had an epiphany. Many of the leadership behaviors exhibited by Trump, reminded me of the executives I have worked with in the past. Thinking this through opened my eyes to behaviors to look for when evaluating a company to work for or picking a CEO for a startup.
Here are my thoughts on the characteristics of a leader/executive that need to be understood for both their positive contribution and negative consequences. While there are terms to label these characteristics, I am going to avoid using them. These are observations to stimulate a discussion.
Visionary with many followers
A major strength of great leaders is to create and communicate a vision of a better future. This future can be a new product, service, process or a new vision for a country’s future. This type of leader epitomized by Trump can rally followers be it their staff, customers or voters. The leader believes in their vision and pushes it as a cause, something that will change the world. They also demand/require personal loyalty from their followers; it is not enough to simply believe in the cause or company.
This ability to gather followers is of huge benefit to the company or political party. It galvanizes focus and energy in a common direction. However, if there are problems, these leaders do not show loyalty to their followers. They do not understand that their success in large part is due to their followers.
A Harvard article stated about these types of leaders:
There are two reasons for this (our image of a leader): they have compelling, even gripping, visions for companies, and they have an ability to attract followers.
Dismisses criticism and does not listen to other viewpoints.
Leaders such as Trump reject ideas and input from their staff. These leaders will bypass their team. Trump’s tweets and press conferences reflect this behavior. But in many cases, it is a reflection of being unwilling to adjust their idea or actions based on other’s input. If staff criticizes, they are dealt with harshly, and pushed aside or publically embarrassed. Even press or product reviews that are not positive are received with anger and resentment.
The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said. – Peter Drucker
Over time, these leaders are surrounded by “yes-men” causing the emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome. The process of weeding out alternative voices typically happens as the company or influence of power grows. At this point, there is a distance between the leadership and the followers.
Love of turmoil, competition, and strife.
While most people work well in an organized environment with understood expectations, these leaders, like turmoil and strife. If there is no conflict, they will create it. Their typical management style is to create division, conflict, and competition among the cabinet members or company officers. Without free and trusted conversation between top management, the leader is the only one who knows everything; the center of a wheel with all spokes leading back to one person. Those in the inner circle, typically get offices close to the leader which they think is a reward but often it is so they can be controlled.
Leaders like Trump always have to win. The win can be for a competitive bid, a new health care plan or a competitor acquisition. Losing is not an option even if it is not best for the company or country. Competition and winning become a test of loyalty for the followers as well. Leaders like Trump set up competition between staff. As they see each other as competitors, paranoia sets in. Creative energy is focused inward, productivity drops, and it signals the beginning of leaks, firings, and resignations.
Only the paranoid survive. – Andy Grove
Lack of empathy
Successful leaders are great communicators. Great communicators are often empathetic. I have found empathy, however, missing in these leaders. Presentations, speeches, tweets, etc. are written so they understand them. When this is pointed out, these leaders genuinely don’t comprehend that they should be focused on the audience. The handing out of electoral maps by Trump is a great example. The map makes him feel good and validated, the audience is left confused and annoyed. But Trump persists because it is all about him.
You can see this type of behavior in companies when there is little communication internally (why do employees need to know what is happening?), complicated slides showing product architecture to an end user audience, and a single spokesperson for the company (the leader of course!)
Only 40% of the frontline leaders we assessed were proficient or strong in empathy. – Study by DDI
These types of leaders know how to read people to exploit their weaknesses for manipulation. This ability is the closest they get to empathy. When someone is called out publicly by this type of leader, others in the organization sigh with relief that it was not them. When you are in this kind of environment, it becomes routine. From the outside, we wonder why people stay in such a toxic environment, but inside, it is just part of the job.
Leaders with these behaviors may be beneficial for creating and growing a company. Often, companies or organizations begin to fail as the leader ages or retires. In some cases, the top managers realize the toxic nature of the organization and leave. When this happens, there begins a decline of the organization as talent staff learn to avoid joining the company. For Trump, this means smart and capable Republican experts turn down joining his administration, making it even less effective. 3Many successful companies and political leaders share these characteristics. While good for the organization, it can create negative result long term.