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What Could Really Hurt Donald Trump’s Campaign

June 1, 2016, 7:31 PM UTC
Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Mobile, Alabama
Mark Wallheiser Getty Images

For months, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign shocked experts and delighted passionate fans. It stalled in April following his loss in the Wisconsin primary, but then quickly rebooted and staffers lined up behind a new direction. But just as Trump last month became the presumptive Republican nominee, his team appears to be more disorganized than ever.

Such is the unfolding drama of Trump, his team, and its ever-evolving strategy for defeating what the U.S. presidential hopeful calls, “Crooked Hillary.” This insulting nickname for Hillary Clinton, which has stuck to his opponent like gum on her shoe, illustrates the core issues facing Trump at this critical moment. Put it in terms of a single question: Can he move beyond outrageous name-calling and assemble the organization needed to be the last survivor at the end of the 2016 election season?

Time will tell. A few weeks ago, it looked as if Trump’s team had turned a corner for the better. But now we wonder if he can follow through on his commitment to be more “presidential.” Whatever happens, we can guarantee that he will continue to provide valuable lessons about teamwork, even if he ends up defeated . Like your team and any team that seeks to be high-performing, Trump and his people need to revisit three key questions as they head toward the general election:

What do we want to do?

Trump needs to decide whether he wants to be remembered as the shock-jock candidate who went down swinging or the upstart who built the lasting alliances needed to secure the White House. Even though he is the presumptive nominee, he has shown little willingness to stop taunting and criticizing Party leaders. Last week, he claimed Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico and the head of the Republican Governors Association, was “not doing the job.” Trump had the gall to deliver the jab at a rally in Albuquerque. At a separate event, he mocked Mitt Romney for walking “like a penguin.”

Scott Reed, head strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, offered stern advice for Trump about this abrasive rhetoric, saying he “needs to understand that he is now the titular head of the G.O.P.” But Trump continues to act like the primary contender who had a finely tuned insult for each person. Like any high-performing team, the Trump campaign needs to get aligned on strategy if they want to build on their previous successes.

Who is doing what?

New York Jets football team owner Woody Johnson, who is a major Trump supporter, dismissed the latest confusion swirling around the Trump team. “There’s no such thing as job security in a campaign,” Johnson said. That may be, but people rarely do their best work when they are feeling insecure about their jobs It’s better to allow a few essential team members to settle into their roles and get used to delivering consistent results. On high-performing teams, people are comfortable with each other and know how to collaborate. When positions rotate like a revolving door, a group fails to gel and generate the 1+1 = 3 synergies that characterize the best teams. Mounting evidence suggests that internal missteps are distracting the Trump team from responding to openings. Scott Reed believes that the “drama in Trumpville” cost the campaign an opportunity to capitalize on the “devastating” report about Clinton’s use of a private email account for government business.

How should we work together?

According to Sam Nunberg, who was fired from the campaign last year after fighting with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Trump “certainly does love playing people against each other.” But Nunberg was far from bitter. “You become very committed in that environment,” he said. Others seem to have a harder time with it. Rick Wiley, national political director, lost his job after run-ins with state campaign officials and is still upset so far. Among team members and co-workers, conflict is fine and even desirable, but it needs to be managed so that it can be channeled toward supporting collective goals. Trump seems inclined to punt the problem of collaboration to the Republican National Committee, which he says has “built, over years and years, staffs in every state.” But Trump appears to have a problem building even one cohesive team of staffers.

Granted, Trump may not want to build a team, since he has consistently dismissed input from data specialists and communications experts. And he has a track record of making his do-it-yourself orientation work for him. But this time, given the complexity of running a successful presidential campaign, he may actually need some help from others.

Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at Wharton School of Executive Education. Newberry is a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business.