Ever since Donald Trump descended his golden escalator and took over US politics and popular culture, those of us who teach future business leaders have faced a strange dilemma. The most powerful person on Earth has a long history of dispensing advice on leading, dealmaking, and wielding power: Should our students become his?
For more than a decade, I’ve taught classes in leadership at Harvard and the University of Chicago. In the almost three years since Trump’s escalator moment, I have steadfastly refused to change my lesson plan (you can think of this as my modest contribution to the Resistance). But it hasn’t been easy.
I’ve always told students at the very beginning of class that the chief misconception of those who aspire to positions of authority is the belief that leadership is an exercise akin to primal displays of male dominance. This is a fallacy that is most seductive to teenage boys and those who are developmentally indistinguishable from them. Unfortunately, it is also embraced by the president with all the enthusiasm of ungainly adolescence. Whether it is the superlatives that have become a mainstay of presidential rhetoric — everything inevitably has to be the best, the most, the biggest ever — or the greetings that look like an aggressive child learning to shake hands, our president’s leadership style has all the subtlety of a silverback gorilla threatening beta-males.
And this is by design. Trump has explained his approach to power and authority in one of the most neglected entries in his literary catalog, Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life, a slightly sanitized title (and, therein, somewhat incomplete) relative to the original, Think Big and Kick Ass: In Business and Life.
The book was originally published in 2007, when Trump enjoyed the hubris of his billions and a hit reality TV show, without the occupational headaches of propriety and good taste. It portrays life as a series of roadblocks that must be bulldozed rather than bypassed, and applies this logic to the art of negotiations and dealmaking. “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win,” he observes. “That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal, you win — not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”
Despite living in gilded mansions and indulging every carnal desire, Trump’s view of the world is remarkably bleak.
Ever since the beginning of his presidency, we have watched Trump vainly endeavor to apply this approach, especially to global affairs. In his efforts to strong-arm other countries, Trump has often petulantly walked away from the negotiating table or struggled to sit down in the first place. The consequences for US foreign policy have been alarming. On the one hand, with the abandonment of global agreements like the Paris Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, many of our closest allies have become skeptical that they can work in good faith with the administration. At the same time, hardliners and autocrats from the Philippines to Abu Dhabi have seen in Trump a leader whose brutal instincts they immediately recognize (and very much appreciate).
As the president insists in the pages of Think Big, human affairs offer two types of interaction: submission and dominance. Other people can either be cowed or crushed. In turn, despite living in gilded mansions and indulging every carnal desire, Trump’s view of the world is remarkably bleak. There is no possibility of reliable allies. Faithful employees are a fiction (“My motto is ‘hire the best people and don’t trust them’”). And even close friends pose an ever-present danger. “They want your jobs, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife, and they even want your dog,” Trump warns. “Those are your friends; your enemies are even worse!”
Given such views, can it be surprising that Trump has accomplished so little on the global scene? The president’s instinctive paranoia, together with a sense of self-esteem at once inordinate and fragile, have invited contempt from allies and manipulation by enemies. Consider North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who has, by turns, satisfied and starved the president’s boundless ego. Just a few weeks back, Trump was reveling in the possibility of winning the Nobel Prize for bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. Behind the scenes, the New York Times reported last week, administration officials were struggling to get North Korea to even return their calls.
Notwithstanding his failure to successfully exert his power in global affairs, many of my students are still inclined to believe that President Trump is the embodied wisdom of Niccolò Machiavelli. He was not above savage displays of power consistent with the so-called laws of the jungle, but insofar as a prince needed “to know well how to use the beast,” Machiavelli counseled him to channel both the lion and the fox. The spirit of the lion was conducive to violent displays consistent with shock and awe, whereas a foxlike sensibility was essential to the slippery arts of duplicity. By those arts, Machiavelli did not merely have in mind the ability to tell a lie — a talent for which Trump has proven himself so gifted he tells them even when they’re unnecessary — but a kind of social dexterity that allows one to be strategic in his behavior. A prince, he says, must be “a great pretender and dissembler” to win people’s trust. He must selectively lie without giving the appearance that he is anything other than a model of candor.
Trump has proven himself ill adept at such duplicitous behavior. A recent poll shows that he has failed to convince the majority of Americans of his honesty, with only 37% saying he tells the truth “all or most of the time.” Indeed, rather than strategically dissemble to achieve some goal, he more often using lying in a lionlike manner, as a club of sorts to achieve some purpose. As the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman described this tendency in a December tweet, the president “wears people down by repeating the same falsehoods/criticisms of what he doesn’t like over and over.”
The observation provides a useful insight into Trump’s unlikely success in politics, which has largely relied on exploiting norms of civility. For instance, in the early days of his presidential campaign, Trump benefited from the practice, routine even in the cynical precincts of US politics, of extending the benefit of the doubt to others — not only trusting what they say is accurate and true, but trusting that they believe it's true as well.
But these assumptions are only warranted if both parties hold truth and accuracy in relatively high esteem, and as journalists have rudely discovered, when one party dispenses with such commitments, it complicates matters mightily. You cannot take what someone is saying at face value, but you also can’t accept as sincere any ensuing explanation for statements that otherwise appear incriminating. For example, when days after Fox News hosted the first GOP primary debate, Trump described moderator Megyn Kelly’s performance in lurid terms — “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” — many chalked up the line to a typically inarticulate candidate. He couldn’t possibly have meant…
Nearly two years later, we know better: He certainly could.
A willingness to step aside may be an act of submission, but in polite society, it is more often the sign of exhaustion.
As Trump has lost the benefit of the doubt, he has increasingly relied on the strategy Haberman describes above, wearing down the resistance of disbelief until people just throw up their hands in exasperation. The success of such an approach doesn’t rely on a foxlike cunning, but it also doesn’t require the lion’s threat of blunt force trauma. Yes, a willingness to step aside may be an act of submission, but especially in polite society, it is more often the sign of exhaustion.
And this makes for one of the great ironies of President Trump’s leadership style: It intimidates not so much by fear as simple fatigue. Indeed, beyond a few weak-kneed House members and well-fed lackeys in the West Wing, no one really fears getting their ass kicked by Donald Trump. But they’re terrified at the prospect of endlessly having to hear about it.
As one who spends considerable time teaching young people how to make sense of power and authority and, therein, how to cultivate their own capacity for leadership, I confess to having no interest in training them to discover their inner loudmouth. Yes, it is true that the Kick Ass attitude has succeeded for Trump, but even setting aside moral reservations about such behavior, I also think the president’s success is far more the exception than the rule. The world may work a little differently for the extremely rich and well-known, and the sorry wisdom of the Access Hollywood tape ("when you’re a star, they let you do it") suggests Trump knows this all too well. But for those who aren’t already celebrities, the president’s approach — that of a blinged-out human bulldozer — will typically succeed only in one being shown the exit, a fate that second-rate Trumpian pretenders have discovered in the White House when they have made the disastrous mistake of trying to emulate the boss.
As I tell my students, the power of persuasion can often seem like no power at all. It requires empathy, understanding, close attention to others, and compromise. These are traits the president has shown neither an aptitude for nor an interest in, and many of his failures in office reflect these omissions. Trump remains unbowed, however, for the Kick Ass ethic does not include learning from mistakes. “We think we’re civilized,” he says. “In truth, it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless.”
It is not, at least for now. But whether it remains that way depends on the leaders we choose — and those we challenge ourselves to be.
John Paul Rollert is an adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.