Americans will vote today to choose their next president and as it stands the polls suggest a tight race and for many too close to call.
I am not advocating narcissism or for telling people only what they want to hear as a way to be an effective leader. However, it is undeniable that Trump’s strategy has helped him create a strong followership.
As much as we see a flawed candidate in Hilary Clinton, many of us remain bewildered by the enduring support for her seemingly underqualified – and many would say unfit for office – opponent. Donald Trump got more primary votes than any Republican in history. He continuously polls around 40% nationally while rarely going above 45%, and analysts describe his large and loyal base of support as having a high floor but a low ceiling. The resilience of his base is made all the more impressive as he has been hit by several scandals since his campaign began. The most notable was the release last month of a video in which he can be heard boasting about sexually assaulting women. He said his comments were “locker room talk” and denied ever having sexually assaulted a woman, but several have since come forward alleging just that. This would have been enough to end the campaigns and political lives of more traditional candidates, but Trump has survived.
1. Jim Collins noted in Good to Great that the most successful companies were run by so-called “Level 5 Leaders,” who had both fierce resolve but were modest and self-effacing. Donald Trump puts his name on everything, including his buildings, and touts his success at every opportunity. It seems that narcissism and self-promotion, rather than modesty, lead to success – at least in seeking political leadership. Perhaps this is partly because to be elected, you first need to be noticed. The human condition is such that we prefer what feels familiar and after endless repetitions of the name “Trump,” it certainly feels familiar.
2. Many see Trump as loud and bombastic, a bully, but to his supporters he is charismatic, emotionally compelling and authentic. His supporters will say they are drawn to him because he is not a politician, and to them, Trump is resonant and authentic – ‘Donald is all Donald, all the time!’
3. He gives his audience what they want to hear, even if it means playing footsy with the truth. He did not write the best-selling business book of all time, as he claims. And some aspects of his business acumen and success are clearly exaggerated—after all, Trump-named casinos went into bankruptcy.
We live in complex and uncertain times. We crave simplicity and certainty.
4. Trump is perceived as a “tough guy” who can get what he wants using power, money, and connections. This has great appeal to voters who feel that the U.S. has been “too soft” in dealing with international issues, such as terrorism, trade, immigration, etc. He is apparently fearless. He speaks his mind. Most other candidates get evasive pretty often – he does not. He portrays himself as a man of action, taking advantage of a frustration that government has had trouble getting things done. He doesn’t say ‘it’s complicated,’ he says ‘People who can’t get anything done are idiots.’ He puts forward simple solutions for even incredibly complex situations: “Build a wall.” And these simple solutions get repeated over and over again.
5. Donald Trump’s main campaign strategy is to present a picture of “us” (his supporters) against “them” (everyone else!). Many politicians use this as a technique especially when talking about their political opponents. But, Donald Trump uses this strategy constantly and more widely – whether it is Mexico, China, or all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. The result is a group of tightly bonded supporters that see Trump as the only leader that will protect them from these “enemies” and make America great again. This formula of hyper-nationalism and blame of others for the loss of a mythical ‘Golden Age’ is not new and it is why comparisons are made between the wave of support he has captured and the fascist movements of the last century.
I am definitely not advocating narcissism or for telling people only what they want to hear as a way to be an effective leader. However, it is undeniable that Trump’s strategy has helped him create a strong followership. Self-promotion in service of having the stature to influence is an important characteristic of an organizational leader. And while there is nothing new about the importance of a leader knowing their people, their needs and their triggers, what we should also see is the power of a simple, clear and compelling message. We live in complex and uncertain times. We crave simplicity and certainty. We will be drawn towards leaders with a message that cuts through the noise and complexity and presents a way forward. It is easy to achieve this – like Trump – by presenting simplistic solutions: ‘build a wall’ and blaming others. It is harder, but far more effective, for a leader to present an inclusive message of intent and purpose. A message that mobilizes, elevates and sustains us as we face the tough choices and roadblocks that we will have to navigate in pursuit of a better world for all.
I for one will be watching tonight, and hoping that sense will prevail.