U.S. President Donald Trump (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Years ago when I had just begun doing workshops, I struggled to find ways to grab the audience’s attention. One technique was to invite participants to list the attributes of a good leader. So-so, but never a great icebreaker!
Then I hit on the opposite. I asked people to tell me about their worst boss. First one hand would go up. Then another and pretty soon people didn’t wait to be called upon they shouted out their answers. Everyone soon began laughing, not at the experience of being poorly managed but because they all suffered a similar fate.
Decades later I am reminded of this exercise when I think of President Donald Trump in the White House. While it’s too early to judge his record, it is not too soon to critique his management style.
President Donald Trump is an autocrat. He likes to be in charge. On the positive side, we want a leader who values command. After all when you have someone who shies away from power, nothing ever gets done. On the negative side, Trump does not share power. He hoards it. As he said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, “I alone can fix it.”
So far the “I” part isn’t going so well. Appointments go unfilled and even simple media releases are poorly written and worse contain repeated misspellings. Chaos yes, competency no. Trump is disproving the notion that businessmen can seamlessly slip into government and make the trains run on time.
Trump spurs rivalries amongst his aides. This sparks friction and bruised egos. His restless tweeting belies a man who lacks impulse control as well as someone who likes being in control. The chaos he creates calls attention to himself. It enables him to look like the only person who can create order out of such chaos.
Above all we are told the president values loyalty. If he thinks you are with him, you are golden. Woe to someone who crosses him. Curiously for a man who cherishes loyalty, the behavior of people closest to him in his White House may not always be so loyal. Aides leak their stories – albeit their points of view and their backstabbing of rivals – to the media in the hopes that the president will notice what they are saying.
Silly and sad!
Autocracy certainly has some merits. Executives I know who work in China say they appreciate control the government exerts over infrastructure. Local authorities can pull permits and begin construction on factories, roads and the like. Such is not the case in other developing countries where government control is weakened by bureaucracy and corruption. We Americans are not comfortable the above. We like efficiency but abhor bureaucracy and do not endorse corruption.
President Trump to date is poster boy for autocracy – paper thin and wrinkled. “Companies used to be able to function with autocratic bosses,” wrote Harvard professor and author Rosabeth Moss Kanter. “We don’t live in that world anymore.”
Trump’s management style is not unique, particularly to those who work in closely held businesses or family businesses. The Trump Organization is after all a family shop; it may have global scope but all decision-making resided at the very top with the man in the tower. Had Trump worked for someone else other than his father he might have discovered what it means to work with people rather than in spite of them.
The fallacy of autocracy is that it is efficient. In reality it is not. Oh, it may work for a time but only when the boss is fully engaged and fully in charge. People around the boss derive their authority due to proximity to the boss, not necessarily their ability to get things done. When the boss is away, the organization shuts down.
Worse, autocracy is not sustainable, not merely because of the lifespan of the boss but because all power is centralized. Once I did work for a large privately held business whose founder chose to run the business as if it were still in his garage. He made all the decisions. And when he died, decision-making died with him. Even after his death, the organization was still fumbling its way through basic strategic decision-making.
Leadership is nurtured by inclusion, not because it’s a nice to do, it’s a must-do. Autocratic bosses bear the weight of the enterprise on their shoulders. While they may entertain outside counsel, the operative word is “entertain.” They are in charge and they like to consider themselves as the boss, meaning the only one in charge and the one with the best ideas. Always.
Gomorrah, the Italian TV series (available via Netflix), tells the story of a tightly run Neapolitan mob clan. When the boss is thrown in prison, his son tries to exert authority by being the tough guy he father was. What he misses is his father’s ability to work with others, including his mafia sub-chiefs. Acting tough does not make you tough. In fact, as we see in this crime series, it makes you a target.
Autocracy by nature is exclusionary. It chokes off the life force that comes from working with other people. Leadership alone is leadership denied.