Everything we bash Donald Trump for is actually what we seek in leaders

Aug 07, 2015

In the spring of 2014, I turned in a book manuscript about leadership that, because of the turmoil within the publishing industry, will only be published next month. In the index for that book: entries for Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina.

I wish I could say I was prescient about the unfolding race for the Republican nomination, but I wasn’t even thinking about this ever-entertaining spectacle. Instead, I was trying to address a topic that’s vitally important to individuals who want to thrive in today’s intensely competitive work world: the enormous disconnect between the leadership prescriptions regularly offered to an unsuspecting public by the enormous leadership industry and what social science and everyday observation suggest is the best path to individual success. For the most part, real-world success comes from behaviors that are precisely the opposite of typical leadership prescriptions.

So, no, you don’t have to look to angry, disaffected voters to explain the Trump phenomenon. Trump actually embodies many of the leadership qualities that cause people to succeed—albeit they are pretty much the opposite of what leadership experts tout. Here are a few examples.

Donald Trump puts his name on everything, including his buildings, and touts his success at every opportunity, behavior that contradicts both the common-sense belief that we prefer people who don’t self-promote and research that best-selling author Jim Collins published in Good to Great. Collins noted that the most successful companies were run by so-called “Level 5 leaders,” who had both fierce resolve but were modest and self-effacing. What gives?

Numerous studies show that narcissism, not modesty, and self-confident, even overconfident, self-presentation lead to leadership roles. This is partly because to be selected, you first need to be noticed. There is also the “mere exposure” effect. We prefer what feels familiar to us, and after endless repetitions of the name “Trump,” it certainly feels familiar. And even though we say we want people who don’t self-aggrandize, we secretly like the confident, overbearing people because they provide us with confidence—emotions are contagious—and also present themselves like winners. We all want to associate with success and pick those who seemingly know what they are doing.

Trump also takes liberties with the facts. No, he did not write the best-selling business book of all time, as he claimed. And some aspects of his business acumen and success are clearly exaggerated—after all, Trump-named casinos went into bankruptcy. No matter. Telling the truth is an overrated quality for leaders. Leaders lie with more frequency and skill than others. Some of the most revered and wealthiest people mastered the skill of presenting a less than veridical version of reality. Larry Ellison, like many people working in software, exaggerated the availability and features of products. And then there’s Steve Jobs. The phrase “reality distortion field” says a lot about Jobs’ fabulous ability to make things that weren’t true become true through his assertions of their truthfulness, a widely known process called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

And it’s not just Trump. Carly Fiorina exemplifies another trait I see among the most successful—not admitting to setbacks and presenting a positive spin on every aspect of one’s career. Watching her you wouldn’t know that she was forced out of her CEO job at Hewlett-Packard; presided over HP’s acquisition of Compaq, thereby cementing the company’s leadership position in a dying, low-margin business that is now being spun off; and orchestrated the layoffs of tens of thousands of employees. Accounts repeated often enough become taken as truth. And in any event, leaders will get enough criticism and second-guessing without doing it to themselves.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s recent call for servant leaders is well intentioned. But at a time when CEO salaries have soared to more than 300 times that of their companies’ average employees, there’s not too much servant leadership going on.

Why is there such a disconnect between prescriptions for what people should do and what really produces career success? Sociobiology and social psychology have recognized for decades that what is good for the individual is not necessarily what is good for the group, and vice versa. Group and individual success are not highly related. Case in point: Fiorina left HP with an enormous severance package when she was ousted, but no, the company’s stock price didn’t flourish nor did the thousands laid off by her and, for that matter, by her successors.

Another piece of the puzzle: most leadership talks, books, and blogs describe aspirational qualities we wish our leaders possessed. So we tell stories about unique, heroic, unusual people and situations—not quite realizing that the very uniqueness probably makes such tales, even if they are true (and they are often not), a poor guide for coping with the world as it exists.

My recommendation? First, understand the social science that speaks to the qualities that make people successful, at least by some definitions: the economic penalties, particularly for men, from being too nice; research that shows that lying in everyday life is both common and mostly not sanctioned; and the evidence that narcissistic leaders in Silicon Valley earn more money and remain longer in their CEO roles. The only way to change the world is by first understanding how it really works.

And second, we should take a hard look at our own behavior; how we are complicit in producing leaders of precisely the type we say we don’t want. It is only when we stop making excuses for what Claremont business professor Jean Lipman-Blumen has appropriately called “toxic leaders” that things will change.

In the meantime, my prediction: Donald Trump is going to dominate the polls and the nomination contest a lot longer than most people expect. Because he has many of the leadership characteristics we say we abhor even as we reward them.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. His latest book, Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time will be published in September 2015 by HarperCollins.

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