Has there ever been a more significant or polarising US Presidential Election? Donald Trump or Joe Biden? Who will be leading the Western World after next week? And could there ever be a bigger contrast in what it means to be a leader?
Love or loathe Donald Trump (and to declare my bias upfront, I’m firmly in the latter camp), you just can’t ignore him. His box office appeal is solid gold. He enjoys nothing more than being front and centre, whether that be in his much-anticipated White House announcements or the highly produced viral content he pushes out across the social media platforms.
He is a visible and charismatic leader, who chooses to mock Joe Biden for wearing a mask and staying hidden away in his basement — even after being diagnosed with the virus himself!
But whatever we think of The Donald, whether we understand him or can make sense of his behaviour, what can we learn from his leadership style? Both positive and negative?
OPTIMISTIC OR DELUSIONAL?
The excellent 3-part BBC2 programme, The Trump Show, has given some great insight into Trump’s leadership style and influences. Apparently he is obsessed by The Power of Positive Thinking book, in which self-help guru Norman Vincent Peale (known as the father of positive thinking) shows how this mindset can transform your life.
The book helps us understand Trump’s road map for life and what influences his psyche. If you believe nothing bad is happening to you, then nothing bad is happening to you! And this is the mentality he is asking his US subjects to embrace and adopt, even at a time of unparalleled fear and uncertainty.
As with most things, Trump takes these beliefs to the extreme. He is the self-styled “chosen one”, with no checks or balances on his behaviour. He is infallible. A little unhinged? Well, maybe. The BBC programme has an interesting piece about Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, talking about A First Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi. This book analyses how some of the best leaders in history have had some form of mental illness.
So, does Trump’s crazy border on genius? Whether it’s about the US buying Greenland or people drinking bleach and disinfectant, it’s very rare these days to wake up and not be greeted by another outlandish remark from the US President on his brilliance as a businessman, as a philanthropist or just as a human being.
THE POWER OF SIMPLICITY
One thing that seems clear is that Trump is a very strong communicator, especially when on the campaign trail. He makes his messages simple and sticky, easy to remember and easy to repeat. Lock Her Up. Build A Wall. Drain The Swamp. Make America Great Again. Sleepy Joe Biden. Keep America Great.
And he has somehow managed to use his bout of COVID-19 to re-emerge with all-American super-hero status. With the help of a Regeneron cocktail of antibodies, he transformed from super-spreader to super-survivor, returning from hospital to the White House by helicopter, with an uplifting message to the nation; “Don’t let it dominate you, don’t be afraid of it, don’t let it take over your lives”. Mask removed; he then gasps for breath on the White House balcony. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m talking about a Netflix show, rather than real life. Pure theatre!
LEADING AS ME OR AS WE?
Trump has obviously made great political capital out of being non-establishment, even anti-establishment. He makes it very clear that it’s all about him, and he’s unashamed about this.
Whether he’s over-ruling America’s highly respected physician (Dr Fauci) or brokering deals with Kim Jong-un, he is the man, always centre stage. Mike Pence, by comparison, appears to be a very silent and compliant No 2.
At Brand Genetics, we have been reading Jim Collins’ excellent Good To Great book, and one of his 7 key insights into business transformation is around what he calls “Level 5 Leadership”. He defines this as follows: “Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves. Level 5 leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated. They channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” This sounds much more Joe Biden than Donald Trump, doesn’t it?
THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE (HX) LEARNING
These two contrasting leaders will keep the US and the rest of the world spellbound into next week. But they can also teach us a lot about leadership and communication too.
The 3 key lessons for me are:
- Be upbeat and positive, for sure. But also remain realistic. At Brand Genetics, we are big believers in the power of human positivity. Our aim is to unlock positive growth, which we define as growth that adds sustainable business value, makes people’s lives better, and has a positive impact on our world. But we don’t advocate positivity to the extremes of fake news, self-delusion or doing something just because you can.
- Keep things simple, and over communicate. This is especially important when so many of us are working virtually. Whether it be the way you handle team communication and social events internally or the way you advertise your products and brands externally, sometimes less really is more.
- Empower your people, showing Level 5 Leadership. Real autonomy and responsibility encourage self-management, leading to self-motivation. At Brand Genetics, we shorthand this into talking about the “BG we”, believing “teamwork makes the dream work” and we should all “keep calm and collaborate.” It’s all about “we”, not all about “me”.
And the next US President? Well, we have no more desire to interfere in US elections than the Russians. But I believe the role of leaders is to unite rather than to polarise and divide. So personally, I’m hoping the next President can begin to re-unite what has become an increasingly divided world. Or is that just The Audacity of Hope?!
Andrew Christophers is Co-Founder of Brand Genetics, a global insight and innovation agency specialising in unlocking growth by thinking human-first. Brand Genetics’ global clients include ABInBev, Estee Lauder, Mondelez, PepsiCo, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever. Andrew previously held marketing and innovation roles at Cadbury, Guinness and United Biscuits.