In a globally-connected economy dominated by the US, the outcome of the US presidential election was always going to be relevant. However, the 2020 event has aroused a remarkably high level of interest and emotion, even outside the US.
A lot of this is due to the controversial, confrontational leadership style of outgoing US president Donald Trump. His rise and fall offers some useful positive and negative lessons for other aspiring leaders, whether in politics or business.
Starting with the positive, Trump largely did what he said he would do. He said he would build a new concrete barrier between the US and Mexico, and the work is still under way, although progress is short of what he promised. He confronted North Korea over its weapons testing and although there has been no deal on that country’s nuclear programme, Trump achieved some dialogue with Kim Jong-un. He threatened China with trade tariffs to stop theft of intellectual property and unfair trade practices, and those tariffs were applied, although the results were not positive for the US economy.
Few things are less damaging to a leader’s credibility than making empty threats. But it is important that what a leader promises or threatens to do should be achievable.
Trump communicated openly and often, through Twitter (@POTUS), press conferences and interviews. He was often boastful, offensive, and was frequently accused of falsehoods, but he never left anyone in doubt where he stood on various issues. “I think one of the reasons Trump remains politically competitive is that a lot of Americans credit him with being authentic, even if he goes too far,” one commentator told The Washington Post.
Leadership hinges on communication: telling the team the strategy, making it clear when you are happy or dissatisfied with performance, making suggestions and airing views. But there is a way to air opinions, even strong ones, in a more tactful and sensitive style than Trump achieved. A security guard who had a brief encounter with Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, said afterwards: “Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself”.
Most psychologists describe Trump’s overriding characteristic as enormous self-confidence, which is a great asset in a leader. But if you don’t have it, you can fake it.
However, some key aspects of Trump’s leadership explain why he only lasted a single term.
He showed himself to be domineering and intolerant of those who disagreed with him. This resulted in high staff turnover within the inner office – according to The Brookings Institute, turnover in the “A team” during his term was 91%. A Fox News presenter said that “Trump walks into the room, sucks out all the oxygen”.
While this level of forcefulness has its advantages, it means such a leader surrounds him- or herself with people who are always ready to agree rather than debate or contradict, resulting in flawed decision-making and a vacuum of other strong characters who might be future potential leaders.
He is resistant to new ideas. Trump dismissed the threat of climate change, and his formal withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is expected to be reversed by Biden. Most tellingly, close to the election, he refused to accept the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was reflected in his initial refusal to endorse mask-wearing as a measure to contain the spread of infection. In early November, the US was recording over 100,000 new Covid-19 cases a day.
He fostered division, rather than reconciliation. Trump’s rallying cry has been “put America first” and he has regularly made disparaging comments about black people, Mexicans, women and Chinese, among others. In the last few months of Trump’s presidency, he was confronted with violent protests against racism in the aftermath of the shooting of George Floyd. Biden exemplifies far better leadership on this point. In the aftermath of the election, when Trump and his supporters have seethed and complained that the results were rigged, Biden has called for unity, saying “this is the time to heal in America”.
Good leaders focus on getting groups of different individuals to work together for the sake of a bigger goal.
Biden is considerably less flamboyant than Trump, but his leadership style is more likely to deliver social and economic stability for the US over the next few years.