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Opinion | Christian Stokes | Trump’s challenge to leadership

Published:Wednesday | February 22, 2017 | 2:00 AMN. Christian Stokes
US President Donald Trump

The earliest theory of leadership was aptly referred to as 'The Great Man Theory'. It proposed that great leaders were born so and were larger-than-life figures who wrote history with the pen, the sword, with voice and with gold.

The main proponent of this theory was a 19th-century social commentator and historian named Thomas Carlyle. The theory was at first, in the 1860s, challenged by Herbert Spencer, a classical liberal political theorist, and since discredited in academic research.

Nevertheless, the sentiments of the theory remain insidious in our casual consideration of what great leadership is. By the late 20th-century, the idea of a 'Great Man' leader had been absorbed into the charismatic leader and was personified by Lee Iacocca and other celebrity CEOs.

In his 2001 essay titled The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership, renowned public academic Jim Collins wrote: "Virtually everything our modern culture believes about the type of leadership required to transform our institutions is wrong. It is also dangerous. There is perhaps no more corrosive trend to the health of our organisations than the rise of the celebrity CEO, the rock-star leader whose deepest ambition is first and foremost self-centric."

Through his research on leadership qualities that supported CEOs moving their companies from 'good to great', as he defined it, Collins concluded that the highest level of leaders, Level 5, possess a 'paradoxical blend' of humility and self-deprecation, coupled with single-minded determination, and a laser focus on the enterprise and away from themselves.

Zeroing in on the celebrity leaders of most comparison companies that did not make the jump from good to great, Collins noted that they were egocentric individuals, far more concerned with themselves, their public image and being paid homage to than the companies they served, and, thereby, were ultimately unsuccessful in creating a 'great' company.

Collins' advice to boards of directors looking for a Level 5 leader is that they seek to identify someone who "demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation and never boastful".

Clearly, the majority of Electoral College voters in the recent US presidential election were not looking for a Level 5 leader to 'Make America Great Again'.

 

NARCISSISTIC LEADERSHIP

 

The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States has rekindled interest in a pariah among leadership theories, narcissistic leadership.

Freud, who first popularised the term 'narcissist', describes them as "especially suited to act as a support for others, to take on the role of leaders, and to give a fresh stimulus to cultural development or damage the established state of affairs".

Narcissists can be productive and, indeed, enormously successful in business. Common examples include Jack Welch, George Soros and Larry Ellison. An executive in the latter's company, Oracle, famously commented that: "The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe He is Larry."

Narcissists are often 'silver-tongued' risk-takers with the willingness and confidence to take on large and fundamental institutional transformation, while cloaking themselves in an aura of invincibility, and are willing to bend reality so that it shows them as perpetually successful. In times of uncertainty and fear this sort of confidence is comforting, and reassuring.

The same sense of invincibility which makes narcissistic leaders so appealing is also their Achilles heel. Lingering in the underbelly of their grand schemes and visions of remaking the world is a paranoia which frames all who disagree with the leader as the enemy, and any threat to success a plot by these enemies.

 

Superhuman status

 

While the narcissist views himself as clearly personally superior to his followers, he is also dependent on his followers for adoration. This adulation is proof positive of his superhuman status; he becomes more spontaneous, normative restraints fall away from his person, caution recedes in the distance, and all things are made new in his image.

Narcissistic leaders listen not for information but for confirmation that what they already think is true, and speak not so much to inform, but to indoctrinate.

Criticism in that world is not an expression of an alternative point of view, but an affront to the image itself which is taken personally and must be eliminated. Big and bold as they portray themselves, they bruise easily and will abandon important matters in midstream so their egos may be repaired.

Despite his apparent low ratings on commonly taught effective leadership characteristics, a case may be made that Mr Trump embodies a leadership style befitting the circumstances.

What the American Electoral College voter wants is bold change with their own interests at the centre in the face of entrenched institutionalised interests. Perhaps what is required is not a leader of an organisation but a leader of a rebellion, and perhaps the characteristics of leaders of rebellions need to be quite different from those of organisations.

What if erecting walls and tariffs, deporting undocumented aliens, closing out refugees, forcing American companies to retain or bring back manufacturing to American, etc? What if all that leads to a fairer, safer, more prosperous America? Then a century of economic and leadership thought would be wrong.

As a researcher in economic development and leadership, I have taken to clinically observing the unfolding of things, actions and outcomes, hoping to test these against various theories. But I live in this experiment, and reflect often on the words of Sancho Panza, squire to a famous narcissist, Don Quixote: "For nobody knows the heart of anyone, and a man may come for wool and go back shorn."

- N. Christian Stokes is founder and CEO of NCS Enterprises. Email: ncstokes@ncsenterprises.com