The Trump leadership-by-fear model falls short

Fuhgeddaboudt presidential aspirant Donald Trump embarrassing the Republican Party. He’s giving American business executives a bad name.

His public displays of bluster, ostentation, greed and ignorance reinforce the worst stereotypes of American capitalism. Trump’s straight talk and pseudo-authenticity may appeal to the nativist vote, but don’t mistake his behavior as an example of great business leadership.

Whether it is questioning President Barack Obama’s competence, claiming illegal immigrants are rapists or calling the nation’s political leadership “stupid,” the only thing Trump consistently praises is himself. That plays well with some white Republican primary voters, but is such rhetoric really the secret to successful business leadership – or leadership of any kind?

“It depends on whether you think people respond to fear,” said Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communications at Texas A&M University who specializes in presidential rhetoric. “Trump’s style is much more about belittling, berating and talking over people. It’s not about celebrating the innate qualities or ideas of the people he’s working with. It’s about goading them to do what he thinks is right.”

Anyone who has held a leadership role knows that fear does not bring out the best in people. The U.S. Army taught me that 30 years ago when it promoted me to sergeant and sent me to leadership school.

Most of the businesspeople I meet are the exact opposite of Trump: thoughtful, kind, courteous and generous. In contrast, Trump can act with impunity because he’s the founder, chairman, CEO, president and majority owner of the privately held Trump Organization. He gets to choose his board of directors, management team and subordinates based on willingness to comply rather than readiness to lead.

“It’s understandable that this kind of CEO is more likely to have an authoritarian leadership style, because they have all the sources of power,” said Anthea Zhang, a professor of strategic management at Rice University’s Jones School of Business.

CEOs and managers of publicly traded companies with independent boards don’t have the same authority. Public corporations are rarely tied to an individual and try to attract strong, talented and innovative management teams, and that means dropping the tough-guy shtick.

“If you are the CEO of a privately held company, the authoritarian leadership style might work,” she said. “But if you are hired by a publicly held company, your original leadership style might not work.”

Such as becoming president of the United States – where there is something called the separation of powers.

Trump also mistakes notoriety for popularity and has offended many with his quoting of Gordon Gecko, the villain in the film “Wall Street.”

“The point is that you can never be too greedy,” he once said. “I’m really rich. And by the way, I’m not saying that in a bragging way, that’s the kind of mindset you need for this country.”

In an era when social responsibility is important, the Associated Press last week checked on Trump’s claim that he has given $102 million to charity over the last five years. The AP couldn’t find evidence of the donations, and Trump’s campaign staff declined to provide documentation to support the claim.

With both political parties talking about income inequality, Trump is a modern-day Marie Antoinette.

He’s also surrounded himself with people who reinforce the perception that racism and misogyny are rampant behind conference room doors. The man who tried to patent the phrase “You’re fired” had to fire an adviser recently for posting racist comments online. Before that, Trump’s attorney appeared to consider spousal rape perfectly acceptable before issuing a retraction.

I must confess to an idealistic view that American capitalism can be noble. Business is about identifying society’s desires and investing in solutions that are profitable for the business and affordable to the customer, while not requiring government intervention. Commerce can float all boats.

The vast majority of businesspeople I meet at least aspire to that ideal. They balance their obligations to shareholders and customers and strive to leave their businesses and communities better than they found them. Sure, there are bad actors everywhere, and business has its share. But they are the minority.

Too many people around the world, however, think American businesspeople are self-serving and greedy. They believe capitalists exploit ignorance, weakness and loopholes to take advantage of others with little regard for social, economic and environmental consequences.

Trump lives up to that reputation. And he thinks his style is the best way to govern, too.

Politicians aren’t the only ones who should repudiate Trump. So should business leaders.

Business is about identifying society's desires and investing in solutions that are profitable for the business and affordable to the customer, while not requiring government intervention. Commerce can float all boats.
August 8, 2015
Houston Chronicle