Leadership lessons from the President


‘So, what advice would you give Donald Trump, then?’ a client recently asked in a leadership workshop. We’d been talking about what we can learn from world leaders past and present. The news that week was that the President’s approval rating had reached its lowest ever level at 35%, so it was a topical question, but one I was hesitant to answer given that he is a character who evokes strong passions either way. I’d also, of course, never presume to advise the world’s most powerful person…

Nonetheless I was pushed for a response, and thinking about it, identified three key things I would suggest to the Donald in the unlikely event that I am asked to visit the Oval Office. Each of them are about his approach to leadership rather than his policies, and based on our work with leaders across a variety of organisations.

1.Don’t shoot the messenger – President Trump complains about ‘the fake and fraudulent news media’ because of the way he is portrayed and what they say about people’s reaction to his presidency. Commentators tell us that this is partly to reinforce his image as a champion of everyman against the power of the establishment. But it’s dangerous to dismiss everything that is being played back to you and refuse to engage with it. After a while leaders who do this appear distant, out of touch and remote, and they miss out on vital information about how people are feeling day to day which can help in shaping and implementing policy

We sometimes see something similar with leaders in organisations who are reluctant to run surveys or get involved in conversations ‘because it’s a bad time’ or ‘people are not happy’. If that is the case, it’s far better to give people chance to express dissatisfaction and understand what’s behind it, than ignoring it and letting it continue and grow. Surveys don’t create discontent, but they can help you focus on and tackle it. Bad stuff won’t go away simply because you avoid shining a light on it.

Often just having a chance to vent frustrations and share concerns can be enough, even if nothing can really be done about them. We have seen leaders who acknowledge concerns, show that they have been noted and respond to them strengthen their position and build trust – the crucial foundation for effective leadership.

2.Show some personal vulnerability – demonstrating emotion and admitting to moments of doubt help make leaders appear ‘real’ and reinforce the trust people have in them. The President doesn’t do this – everything is ‘beautiful’, or if it’s not, it’s someone else’s fault. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was seen as a thoughtful and serious leader, but showed personal emotion, and a few tears, at key moments such as when he talked of gun control, or address campaign troops. Of course, there has to be balance – no one will trust a leader who breaks down at every set back- and it must be authentic, as people soon sniff out someone faking it.

In organisations, it is the leaders who can put aside the PowerPoints, talk openly about their strategy and why they believe in it, admit to frustration and even the occasional failure who are more likely to get people on board and interested.

3. Give a roadmap and regular updates on progress – one of the main complaints about Trump is that he doesn’t give a coherent overview of what he plans to achieve which means that people find it hard to connect what his administration is doing, which in turn gives an impression of actions being ad hoc and uncoordinated. It also helps his opponents focus on what he hasn’t done – the much discussed proposed wall at the Mexican border, tackling the jobless figures and reforming healthcare.

In reality, the President has made progress in a number of his policy areas, especially on trade and some areas of the economy, but these have been lost. The feeling that there is a lack of an overall plan has been exacerbated by his seemingly random daily tweets and the comings and goings from his personal staff.

We have found that leaders who can give a clear purpose, link all their policies and decisions to it and regularly share successes give a sense of focus, progress and ensure people have reasons to believe.

So, three headline thoughts on leadership from the first six months of the Trump presidency – it will interesting to review again after his first anniversary.

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