Trump and the Politics of Dominance

March 5, 2016, 2:57 PM UTC
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Trump shows off the size of his hands as rivals Rubio and Cruz look on at the start of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump shows off the size of his hands as rivals Marco Rubio (L) and Ted Cruz (R) look on at the start of the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young - RTS97MX
Photograph byJim Young — Reuters

Watching Thursday night’s GOP debate led me to the same reaction as a lot of people–namely, revulsion at the the coarseness of the discourse. But as a longtime management writer and one of the people who oversees Fortune’s Most Powerful Women franchise, I had another observation–which is that Donald Trump practices a style of leadership that is a) about brute dominance b) almost exclusively male and c) incredibly out of fashion.

Just yesterday, Fortune published my story about online shoe retailer Zappos’ attempt to transform its management structure into something less hierarchical and more egalitarian. The approach, called holacracy, has had mixed results at best (for more, see How a Radical Shift Left Zappos Reeling). But for all of Zappos’ struggles, its attempt ties into a larger trend, one that millennials in particular embrace: a more collaborative, less command-and-control style of leadership.

It wasn’t long ago that business was dominated by strongmen CEOs like “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap of Sunbeam and Scott Paper, GE and Home Depot’s Bob Nardelli, and, some would say, even Steve Jobs. But that style of management has largely become extinct as leaders such as Apple’s Tim Cook and others have emphasized teamwork and emotional intelligence.

Trump seems to have missed that memo. Instead, his style is to “win” by domination rather than collaboration, by emasculation rather than disarmament, by vitriol (“Little Marco”, “Lying Ted”) rather than substance. And this is a particular kind of alpha male behavior that is rare among women leaders. I’ll focus on three comments he made on March 3–two during the debate and one in his press conference responding to Mitt Romney.

1.“I could have told Mitt Romney to drop to his knees:”

There is no need for subtext here (or really, anywhere in this article). It’s clear: Romney is physically subservient to Trump. It’s not about disagreement; it’s about destroying Romney’s manhood in order to boost his own.

2. “And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”

Again, it’s about physical domination. My you-know-what is big. Which means that I am a real man. Which means that I am qualified to lead this country.

3. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

What Trump is saying is that leadership is about making people do what you want them to do. And since he is dominant, people have no choice but to obey.

Now, I understand that this certainty–and yes, this machismo–has a certain appeal for some men (and some women) as well. Certainty feels good. And so does winning. America likes a winner.

But when I look at this through the lens of leadership–particularly women in leadership–I think something else. I think that Trump’s retro style is not set up for today’s complex world. And I think that of all the critiques one can make about Trump, his pure alpha male reactivity may be the most worrisome of all the worrisome traits. If Vladimir Putin–another successful practitioner of Macho Manism–challenges Trump’s manhood, what will be his response? For anyone who has ever derided women as emotional beings, I challenge you to think through that scenario.


Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital