Teaching Leadership in Trumplandia

The courses I’ve been teaching over the past decade have leadership somewhere in the title: “Foundations for Effective Leadership,” “Leadership Development,” “Leading Change,” or even just plain “Leadership.” A theme that runs through all of these courses is that the character of leaders matters. I’m more realist than idealist about this, believing that most leaders of poor character or lacking in integrity eventually will receive their due. Think Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (Enron), Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco), John Rigas (Aldephia), and Bernie Ebbers (Worldcom). The leadership market, although inefficient, more often than not rewards those with integrity and punishes those who lack it.

Or so it seemed until November 8, 2016. The election of Trump represents the overwhelming triumph of disruptive forces inveighing against character and integrity. Prior to November, corporate leaders hid their corruption behind the ill-gotten gains of their organizations (think Enron’s spectacular performance) and politicians cloaked their dishonesty in intricate tapestries of lies (think Bush and the weapons of mass destruction). These information asymmetries in the market for character in leadership protected them, at least for a time. But if and when the truth came out – as it often did – the price to be paid for violations of integrity could be high. Think Romney and the 47% ers.

No longer. It’s not that Trump has shown how leaders can sustain information asymmetries indefinitely, never having one’s lack of character exposed to the light of day and suffering the consequent loss of reputation (or worse). Rather, the election of Trump severs the link between integrity and leadership altogether. Prior to Trump, a leader’s character flaws had to be hidden from hearing or sight. Trump ran on his flaws, and won. Put bluntly, character and integrity no longer matter for leadership. The new currencies of leadership in the Trump era are lies, hate speech, score-settling, and bullying. Racism, misogyny, and xenophobia are its core values. 

The link between leadership and character did not suddenly snap with this election. It already had been drawn taut by the behavior of the right-wing and the alt-right. The conservative media has been engaged in outright lies for years now. But it was the everyday Republican party who dragged these deplorable ideas into the mainstream, beginning with the nomination of Sarah Palin as Vice-Presidential candidate. Then followed a clown car filled with the likes of Michelle Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson (I could go on and on). Now, few of the mainstream players – the Paul Ryans and the Mitch McConnells – seem troubled; but, of course, the path now is clear for them to impose their insufferable agenda.

Let us also recall that Trump prevailed in an election, not a coup. Although he lost the popular vote, he won the electoral college. Forty-six percent of Americans supported blatant misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and habitual lying. (I give not a tinker’s damn whether Trump’s supporters actually are misogynist, racist, xenophobic liars – it is entirely sufficient that they supported one as their leader. Economists know that what people assert about themselves is cheap talk; their preferences are self-evident in their choices.) They are indeed deplorable.

Some might argue that character, integrity, and transparency are values inherent to effective leadership regardless of whether corporate or political leaders embody them or not. This view has considerable merit, and I subscribe to it. Unfortunately, models of effective leadership must compete in the marketplace of actual leaders, who say real words and perform real deeds. In this competitive arena, a decisive battle has been lost. Indeed, the very foundation upon which truth is distinguished from falsehood has been shattered. Real news – fake news, who cares?

So what might it mean to teach leadership in Trumplandia? Who knows – I sure as hell don’t. In my courses I’ll do my absolute best to point out the costs of severing the link between character and leadership. But that cost is small relative to the rewards of pandering to the deplorables. These days retirement in Mexico looks more and more appealing.

~ by raysparrowe on December 11, 2016.

2 Responses to “Teaching Leadership in Trumplandia”

  1. I am truly sorry that we did not have time to discuss this in detail I would have liked on your visit. So I’ll dive right on in, since I value your perspective very deeply.

    I guess I’ve always been pretty skeptical of the idea that leadership and character integrity have anything to do with one another. To me that has always seem to link too closely to the territory of David Brooks circa 2008 and glorified rugged individualism. Stalin was a great leader, judging by his success in industrialization–The same standards to which a corporation are held in the neoliberal world. He had terrible integrity. But the social circumstances surrounding him supported despotism. Without strong social organizations in place that value humanity, and arguably we’ve never had that in the United States, and Basic economic structures that do the same, I don’t think character has been essential in leadership. Perhaps enough people of privilege were fooled between 1945 and 2016, into thinking we did.

    Of course I don’t have a PhD. I would truly love to hear how wrong I am.

  2. David Brooks is often wrong, but he is right – on my view – about the relationship between character and leadership, provided that a leader’s character is shaped by positive values and oriented towards the good. But this relationship holds in the world of ideals. You and I agree: in the real world, character is not essential for leadership. As I said in my original post, principled leadership competes against the unprincipled leadership of ‘strong men’ like Stalin, Duarte, or Putin. No one lifts up these individuals as exemplars of effective leadership with any seriousness – no one, that is, until Trump extolled the virtues of Putin.

    You (and I) long for “social organizations that value humanity” and “basic economic structures that do the same.” Those institutions and structures require principled leadership, and this is why the election of Trump is so dismaying: our imperfect institutions and unjust economic structures are to become even more flawed and oppressive. Leadership matters.

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