The US Reality Show
In trying to dissect President Trump’s statements and behaviour we face a dilemma. Some of the style he adopts is precisely what we teach CEOs to do when they are appointed. Making clear your self-set KPIs and then getting on with them without delay is a good leader’s style. So important are the first 500 minutes (one day) and the first 100 days in a job that we have programmes specifically to guide new CEOs to achieve their goals. Trump is a model of getting on with it.
Problems start when we examine what he is getting on with. The substance of his KPIs is what he set out in his campaign. It is what he was, rather marginally, elected on. No matter there were many dissenting voices, democracy as we practise it allows for only one winner. He won. It is coming as a shock to many of us that he is doing what he said he would do. We have become used to politicians who say one thing and do another. None of that with President Trump. This is a reality show in the full sense of the word.
Substance and execution always overlap. As Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message” – at least to some extent. What he would have made of Twitter as the medium we can only guess. So President Trump’s commitment to defend America turns out to include a ban on, perhaps, 135 million potential visitors to the US. This has apparently been decided on religious and / or ethnic grounds. The last fifty years have taught us that corralling of this sort is counterproductive, making the corralled more inclined to terrorism and war.
A great CEO decides what will be done but has two constraints on her or him. First, the mandate given on election to office. The President of the United States has to govern all US citizens, not just those who voted for him. Given the adversarial nature of democratic elections this implies engaging people with opposing views. Engagement is not just rhetoric, it involves action. Some concessions to the half of citizens who didn’t vote for you are called for to help unify the nation – and will be expected. Not to make them is to take leadership down a road to autocracy of the sort followed by Hitler and Osama bin Laden.
Second, every leader knows s/he is a role model. We all teach and learn by example. So all leaders must be constrained in their behaviour by what it is teaching their followers. The next generation is always more important than the present one. As always, the devil is in the detail and the Trump Visitors’ Ban has yet to emerge in its full meaning both as to content and timing. But there are many other bold statements that, it seems, will be put into practice.
This is where our dilemma over President Trump becomes acute. The boldness he exhibits is exactly what the world needs. Look back over fifty years and say which the great leaders were in that time. Precious few, as it happens. The world has been full of rather timid leaders. Democracy, especially when performed through referenda, encourages this. There is a fine band between bold and timid. A good leader is not so bold as to alienate half his constituency.
In the end it boils down to purpose and reason. If the purpose is to develop a better world some of President Trump’s intentions and actions so far are heading in the wrong direction. They fail the test of reasonableness that any great leader must eventually be judged by.
Keep the bold, Mr President, but make it reasonable.