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What does Donald Trump teach us about leadership?

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Charisma can inspire devotion. But what are the dangers of this quality and what attributes do we want leaders of organisations to have?

I am half German. A few years before she died, I spoke with my Omma (German for ‘granny’) about the socio-political conditions in pre-war Germany. With sadness she said that she, along with many peers, was excited and relieved by the hope, certainty and answers that National Socialism and Hitler offered. Read the National Socialist manifesto and it’s a neat weaving together of left and right populism. It was after the election, as the true agenda emerged, that Omma had a sense of “oh my god… What have we done?”

The EU referendum in the UK was a plethora of competing assertions about what was/was not true and would/would not transpire. In the US another leader – Donald Trump – offers a populist mix of simple ‘guaranteed’ solutions for complex problems.

This is the allure of a certain type of charisma. The sense of a compelling attractiveness that inspires devotion – and who has it. If we are socially and politically drawn to charisma then what do we look for in leaders of the organisations we work in?

I have read the odd article asking what we can learn about leadership from Donald Trump. My colleague Michael Jenkins, CEO at Roffey Park, has developed a model for ‘Caring Charisma’ as part of his research into what compassionate leaders and organisational cultures offer. This counters University College London professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s theory about the ‘Dark Side of Charisma’, which suggests charisma dilutes judgment, is addictive, disguises psychopaths and fosters collective narcissism.

The challenge is that psychopathy and narcissism can a) be difficult to spot and b) be deeply alluring. In Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare write: “Some companies quite innocently recruit individuals with psychopathic tendencies because some hiring managers may mistakenly attribute ‘leadership’ attributes to what are, in actuality, psychopathic behaviours. For example, taking charge, making decisions and getting others to do what you want are classic features of leadership and management, yet they can also be well-packaged forms of coercion, domination and manipulation. Failing to look closely beneath the outer trappings of stereotypical leadership to the inner working of the personality can sometimes lead to a regrettable hiring decision.” Or a regrettable choice of elected leader.

What does this mean for leaders? I’m not interested in learning from Trump’s rhetoric, which sways the masses, or his confidence that makes Roman emperors look positively Chihuahua-like. Organisationally and systemically, the following strikes me as being more important, if the need is to attend to leadership that sustains organisations and leaders themselves.

Selling certainty when it is in short supply will garner short-term love and adulation, but unless it is connected to reality this will not enable you to sustain relationships or organisations. Put simply, it is a Ponzi scheme built on a lie of guaranteed wish fulfilment.

Embrace a multitude of approaches and philosophies. I am all for encouraging leaders to be flexible and have a clear idea of what they stand for, and who they are there to serve. If you are clear you are there to serve one group of stakeholders/community/organisation/business at the expense of others, be prepared for the blowback.

To sustain the organisation, including the health and wellbeing of both employees and customers/users, pay attention to charisma in its other forms. “‘Traditional charisma’ does present these dangers,” says Jenkins. “Hence the need to re-cast charisma
as a positive force.”

What does that mean? Some of Roffey Park’s work points to compassion as being key to this, not just in terms of engagement, but also in creating a genuine culture of deep support and robust challenge in service of high performance that is sustainable.

So bring on the charisma, but also ruthless compassion. Without the latter my Omma would probably say you need to be prepared for the shadow to come to the fore.

Steve Hearsum is a senior consultant at the Roffey Park Institute