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Here’s why Trump and Sanders are popular right now

September 24, 2015, 3:35 PM UTC
Donald Trump (left) and Bernie Sanders
Donald Trump (left) and Bernie Sanders
Photographs by Mike Stone and Jay Paul--Reuters

For the past few months, political pundits have been mystified over the populist success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who’ve both amassed and engaged enthusiastic followings. But their bafflement should come as no surprise.

Trump and Sanders have connected with voters who see them as understanding their feelings of being neglected and exploited by those in power. The Sanders Democrats (along with followers of Britain’s newly elected Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn) blame the rich and don’t trust the politicians they believe are their puppets. They want a Robin Hood government that taxes the wealthy to create a more egalitarian society. While many Trump Republicans share the Left’s anger at the billionaires, they feel exploited by a government they say is taking their hard-earned money and giving it to the freeloading poor and law-breaking, job-stealing immigrants.


But in another time of shared prosperity and rising middle-class income, it’s unlikely that either politician would emerge as a national leader. In fact, Trump flirted with the idea of running for President in the late 1980s and the early part of this century, but he found few followers. Sanders has been in politics for many years, running on the same progressive platform, but only now in his seventies has he run for President. Political pundits have assured us that Sanders is too ideologically extreme to be a national leader, but like Trump, he’s noted an angry public and put their feelings into words. And both have convinced a large number of followers they’ll be their champions and that they can’t be bought or intimidated.

Using that timing of both candidates’ ascendency as a model, leadership can’t be defined just in terms of a person’s actions or strengths. It is a relationship in a particular context. A simple but all-encompassing definition is this: A leader is someone with followers. If you have followers, you are a leader. If you do not, even if you are in a leadership role, you are not a leader. Personal qualities are not enough. You can be a leader in one context, but not in another.

In business, leadership is also a relationship in a context. There are many examples of visionary entrepreneurs who’ve launched a successful startup but were unable to lead it when it became large and complex. Some, like Jerry Yang of Yahoo (YHOO) quit, but others, like Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs, learned they needed to partner with other types of leaders—operational leaders who were able to execute their vision and network leaders, who could motivate collaborative teams and permeate silos.

However, company leadership is different from the leadership of populist politicians, like Trump and Sanders, who promise to carry out the demands of their followers. Effective company leaders are not populists. They motivate their followers and collaborators to want to do what needs to be done. And to do this, leaders must learn to engage the intrinsic motivation of people with different personalities.

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Leadership training for companies is effective only when it’s connected to context, to organizational culture, role, and the personalities of followers. Effective company leaders don’t champion people’s resentments, like politicians do. They provide purpose and values that engage employees and provide opportunities for satisfying work and personal growth. Clearly, a key to effective leadership is understanding people. Woodrow Wilson stated that an essential quality of a political leader is “profound sympathy with those whom he leads—a sympathy which is insight—an insight which is from the heart rather than the intellect.”

Although the purposes of leadership may be different in politics, Wilson’s observation is just as true for business, and once would-be company leaders realize this, they can build on their own insights and master the tools they need to engage people at work.

Michael Maccoby is a globally recognized expert on leadership, who for 40 years has advised global leaders in businesses, governments, unions, universities, and non-profit organizations in 36 countries. He is president of the Maccoby Group in Washington, D.C., which offers consulting, coaching, research, and leadership workshops.