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. Character and integrity no longer matter. The foundation of fact distinguishing truth from falsehood has been shaken, if not demolished altogether. 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 the 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).

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.

So what might it mean to teach leadership in Trumplandia? Who knows – I sure as hell don’t. I’ll do my absolute best to point out the costs of severing the link between character and leadership. But these days retirement in Mexico looks more and more appealing.