Since World War II, the president of the United States has also been viewed as the leader of the free world. The mantle of that title carries with it great power, but as Uncle Ben warned Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. President Trump got into office by touting his acumen and success as a businessman. He managed to convince enough people in the necessary states that he was the right person to lead the nation and, as he frequently boasts, “Make America great again!”
What makes a good leader? What is leadership? These questions have stymied not only nations, but groups of any kind since time immemorial. Civilizations have risen and fallen along with the fortunes of their leaders: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Ghengis Khan. The course of history was changed by the likes of William the Conquerer, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Thomas Jefferson. Courses on the topic are offered at universities, as are seminars at business conferences. Despite the plethora of analysis and advice available, however, good leaders and good leadership remain difficult to come by.
The first thing that should be recognized is that being placed in a leadership position does not make one a leader. A true leader is a good leader. A good leader possesses the qualities which are associated with good leadership. What, then, are the qualities of good leadership? When I was serving in the Navy, I attended a class on leadership. It was required training for officers, since they, by dint of their rank, are tasked with leading their units. One afternoon, the instructors screened Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V”. The speech is famous for the phrase “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” and it was delivered by the king to inspire his tired and disheartened troops. King Henry painted a vision of the glory that arose from honor and courage and exhorted his men to unite with him in the battle. The instructors went on to discuss different types of leadership. Visionary leadership by the commanding officer provides the big picture goals along with the inspiration to achieve them, while logistic leadership from the executive officer provides attainable short-term milestones along with guidance and encouragement. They intertwined these concepts with the military-wide adage: “No man left behind” and emphasized that no unit could succeed unless every member could trust every other member to watch his back, from the highest ranking officer to the lowest enlisted serviceman.
In the March 2016 issue of Entrepreneur, Adam and Jordan Bornstein wrote an article titled “22 Qualities That Make A Great Leader.” Whether their list is all-inclusive or is missing qualities can easily be debated, but at least some of the traits on the list are commonly recognized and accepted as characteristics of a good leader: focus, confidence, transparency, integrity, inspiration, commitment, patience, persistence, wonkiness, authenticity, open-mindedness, empowerment, generosity, insight, and accountability. If you were to think about the bosses and supervisors you have had over the course of your lifetime, there is a very good probability that the one whose leadership you most admire exhibited a high percentage, if not all, of these qualities. What that person exemplified was someone who:
1) Believed in a goal.
2) Was confident his team could achieve that goal.
3) Could communicate his vision in a clear yet inspiring manner.
4) Was committed to creating and fostering teamwork.
5) Was willing to listen to, learn from, and give credit generously to all team members.
6) Delegated authority to those best equipped to make the necessary decisions.
7) Was trusted by his team to not sacrifice them for his own advancement nor abandon them when problems arose.
8) Had the maturity to acknowledge and own mistakes.
The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt top the list of our country’s greatest presidents. There is a reason why four of these five men are memorialized on Mount Rushmore. Each of them left an indelible mark on history, where if lesser individuals were in their place, the United States and the world as a whole might be very different today. All of them believed that the nation would be stronger together, if we watched each others’ backs and united both when fighting a common enemy and when working to improve American society. None of them forwarded dark visions of the world adrift or cast themselves as the only one qualified to be the nation’s savior. They did not pit the country’s citizens against each other to maintain political advantage. Yes, mistakes were made, and some were outrageous. But, for the most part, our greatest presidents were true leaders.
Throughout his campaign, Trump ran on a nationalistic and xenophobic platform. He portrayed the country as a post-apocalyptic dystopia, its citizens hunkered down in their homes, awaiting their savior. His strategy was to divide and conquer, and to leave scorched earth everywhere his proposed policies were rejected. He attacked and mocked anyone who disagreed or opposed him. When things went wrong, he blamed everyone but himself, and when things went right, he strutted about and crowed about himself incessantly. He claimed to know more about everything than anyone, not because he had been educated on the subject, but simply because he has “a great intuition”. In fact, he refused to attend meetings where he would have been briefed on important matters because he did not feel he would learn anything. Furthermore, he has maintained a lifelong policy of never acknowledging or apologizing for a mistake. In summary, Trump revealed himself not to be a true leader, but a demagogue and an self-aggrandizing authoritarian.
Trump’s version of leadership is one characterized by intimidation and vindictiveness. Those who support him do so because they think they will benefit from his actions; the ends justifies the means. They are willing to look the other way as American ideals and traditions are trampled for what may be a few extra dollars in their pockets. He was inaugurated less than a month ago. He has claimed that he knows how to behave more presidentially, and would do so once in office, but he has yet to show any sign of changing or even thinking he needs to change. After paying lip service in his acceptance speech to the concepts of unity and leading the nation for all Americans and not just those who voted for him, he has proceeded to govern the way he campaigned, by denigrating and vilifying anyone who does not revere him. A man with these characteristics does not represent me. Trump may be my country’s president, but he is not my leader.