Leadership and Trump – what can we learn?

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.

Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2020


Like many others, and particularly US ex-pats, I watched the events of the 2020 US election unfold. A bit of background: My father was a career US diplomat and my brother a retired US Ambassador. I grew up living in various countries in a family that was proud of being American and happy to represent our country.

I am sure that my father, who passed away over a decade ago, is turning over in his grave seeing how politics has so divided his beloved USA. My brother, who is alive and well in Arizona, a battleground state and a COVID hotspot, was beside himself in 2020 with frustration, anguish and disbelief. He could not believe how so many Americans could vote for someone who is driven by self-interest and self-aggrandisement, and who manipulates others unapologetically with distortion, dishonesty and bullying as part of his MO.

We in the leadership development community tout the importance of concepts like authenticity, empathy, vulnerability, stewardship and service to community and planet. Yet 70 million people voted for a leader that in so many ways is the antithesis of these concepts. Wow! How scary is that? How can that happen?

It makes me ask, “What are people really looking for in their leaders?” Or at least their political leaders?  Have we got it wrong in our leadership development focus? It certainly seems that narcissistic leaders continue to rise to the top in so many places.

As I grappled with this dilemma, I read John Key’s opinion piece in the Herald (paywall) ‘Now I finally understand why voters like Donald Trump’ in which he speaks of Trump’s energy and passion. And Trump being ‘their guy’. But mostly that Trump is the result of the nation’s problems.

Similarly I have some ideas as to why the American public voted in such high numbers for the Donald. Here are a few:

  • People love someone who oozes confidence, particularly in the face of adversity.

  • People love someone who is ballsy enough to challenge the intractable (in this case an ineffective US Government).

  • People love someone who speaks their mind – and forgets the filters, saying things the way they see it. Calling a spade a spade.

  • People love someone who is looking out for the little guy – the people without much influence.

 The word that keeps coming out over and over is:


Yup – his followers, or maybe disciples is a better word, LOVE him.

They love him in an impassioned and almost scary way. And their love means they truly believe in him, despite all the facts that others can amass against him.

Are they blind? These ‘fact checking attacks’ seem to only make his followers double-down, counter-fact, ignore, or claim fake news and conspiracy. The more others try to discredit him, the more entrenched they become (aka “’the backfire effect’).

So what can we learn from Trump and his huge following? Here is what I have learned:

  • When people get frustrated, disenchanted and riled up enough they grasp for leaders that are fresh, different and invincible – bigger than the problems and adversaries that they face. Leaders who are willing to take big risks to effect change. Leaders who espouse the ‘What’s got us here won’t get us there’ philosophy.

  • People want someone who can paint a positive picture of the future. People who are sick of the ways things are, are ready to be sold a better future. Almost any plan will do; it almost doesn’t have to make sense or have any evidence.  The MAGA (Make America Great Again) slogan means so much to the frustrated.

  • People like actionthey want someone who moves fast and knocks down obstacles; something Trump does oh-so-well. Last month I heard on a typically left-leaning podcast The Daily – Donald Trump’s Promises by the New York Times, that Trump had achieved a high percentage of what he had promised to do, despite having an oppositional Congress.

To finish, what I can see, through my ex-pat and leadership development lens, is that Americans have been, and are still, in a state of real frustration with they way things are. There are just so many big issues that are not getting resolved, while new issues emerge. American’s feel threatened with a Government that is dropping the ball, and people are grasping for solutions.

Eight years ago many thought Barak Obama was going to make a real difference, but in many ways he wasn’t big, strong or different enough. Hillary Clinton, despite being a strong woman, was not different enough to get there either. Donald was clearly the answer for some. And they still love him.

We are now about to enter in the era of Biden and Harris. They’re in because of people’s frustrations with Trump and the current state of affairs. They may align more with what we teach in leadership, but I wonder if they are big, strong and different enough to bring people together to alleviate some of the nation’s and worlds problems? I wonder…

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