Leadership Lessons from Donald Trump

Photo Credit: Michael Vadon / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Perhaps no one in the recent history of politics has attracted as much attention as Donald Trump. His presidential campaign and subsequent popularity have caught everyone by surprise, from political pundits who pride themselves on being experts, to the man or woman on the street looking for someone to represent his or her interests. The last serious “outsider” presidential candidate that had similar characteristics and created excitement like Trump was Ross Perot, who ran as an independent in 1992—a kindred spirit to Trump, I believe. Although Perot never had Trump’s numbers, he had the same willingness to speak his own mind openly and “be his own man,” like Trump.

What is it about Trump that has captured so much attention and what can we learn from him about leadership?

A History of Getting Things Done

As of this writing, the popularity of Congress is at an all time low. Only 9% of Americans believe that Congress is doing a good job (Rasmussen Report, September 2015). Congressional gridlock has made the average citizen cynical, believing that no congressional “insider” has the ability and willingness to actually do what it takes make something happen in Washington. On the other hand, Trump has a history of actually making things happen in the private sector, and he is very happy to let you know about his accomplishments. It is estimated that his various companies employ over 34,000 people and generated over $9.5 billion in 2014 (Money, September 2015). The most widely accepted mark of an effective leader in business is the ability to generate profitable revenue and create jobs. When Trump boasts, “I know how to create jobs,” his track record inspires the hope and confidence that he would actually be able to keep unemployment low and create jobs—something no other candidate can boast. The hope of having a president who is able to overcome, or override, an ineffective Congress and manage the economy in tumultuous times is what Trump promises. Although the differences between being a CEO running a company with unilateral authority and running a country with three branches of government are significant, having been exceptionally successful in the private sector certainly does not hurt!

Owing No One

Trump has made it clear on numerous occasions that he is using his own money to finance his campaign and is beholden to no Super PACs, special interest groups, or lobbyists. At a time when external money and influence seem to dictate how our legislators vote, having someone with such autonomy and freedom is welcome. The capacity to act independently lends credibility to any leadership platform. Leaders without obligations to others—including boards, investors, and other stakeholders—are free to do boldly what is best for their enterprise. People want to know that, in the midst of difficult times, their leaders are willing to make independent decisions and not cower, cater, or crater. Trump presents this persona.

Saying What He Thinks

You can almost guarantee that Trump will offend someone on every occasion when he speaks publicly. Although there is nothing particularly noble about offending, in a world of “spinning” the truth to fit various situations, many people find his candor, and even hubris, refreshing. It is hard to fully understand Trump’s motivation for his brashness. Whether or not his rudeness is to draw attention to his independence, create more of a stage for his platform, or is just a total insensitivity to those with whom he takes issue, he has clearly struck a chord with a large number of people. In the words of Jim Collins’s Good to Great, the best of leaders have a responsibility to confront brutal facts. Clearly, Trump is willing to speak what he believes, regardless of the audience.

It is difficult to know if Donald Trump is a candidate to be taken seriously or simply a caricature of himself with his self-promoting, arrogant, and opinionated style. However, he has clearly garnered the strong support of a large number of voters for the very same reasons he has been successful in the past—total independence, saying what he thinks, and being boldly successful. Will he be our next president? What do you think?

Check in next week, when we’ll feature the Leadership Lessons from Bernie Sanders.