Alternative Leadership

Image of Donald Trump addressing his supporters at a rally

The world does not expect much from the new President of the United States, according to an Ipsos MORI poll of 18,000 people in 24 countries, which found that 66 per cent of respondents expect bad things from the Trump administration. As a Statista bulletin recently noted, 81 per cent of Mexican respondents think U.S. voters put in place poor leadership. Similar pessimism exists in the European Union, where expectations for the new U.S. commander in chief were low in the United Kingdom (80 per cent), Germany (78 per cent), and France (77 per cent).

But even if accurate, this poll indicates that more than one-third of individuals around the world expect good things from Trump. In Russia and India, more than 65 per cent of poll respondents think the man will be a good U.S. president. And if you think about it, there is some reason for optimism. In fact, somewhat incredulously, you could argue that the inauguration speech of the 45th POTUS suggests Trump could yet set a positive example for other world leaders.

In his speech, Trump insisted nations exist to serve their citizens. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he insisted after taking office, adding, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”

This message, of course, has been delivered as an empty promise before in many an election campaign. So, the big question is whether Trump means it. As U.S. president, he could use his talents to further increase his wealth, recognition, and importance. But as a businessman, Trump has already achieved recognition and importance. His estimated US$4 billion fortune has proven his “greatness” in the corporate world. As a “winner” in the game of capitalism, he has also already positioned his family for success, too. So, as President Trump, he could really be out to focus his drive on servicing the needs of the citizens he claims have been ignored. The path he takes will help decide if this “larger-than-life” individual goes down in history as a relatively good president with personality flaws or just a bad president.

Regardless of race, nationality, income, gender, or sexual orientation, people across the world can be divided into two groups: individuals who need help building a good life (for themselves, their families, and their friends) and people who do not. Whether due to pure chance or a combination of other factors—ranging from intelligence, education, and motivation to wealth, skills, strength or access to weapons—individuals in the latter group dominate positions of authority, decision-making, influence, and power. They become the world’s leaders, the elected politicians, autocrats, dictators, CEOs, union leaders, school presidents, gang bosses, drug lords, and so on. These individuals make up the minority, but for better or worse, people in the first camp end up following them, living under their jurisdiction, or at their mercy, for a variety of reasons, often including limited choice.

All individuals in the leader category share one attribute: the desire to win. But as noted in Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, only some share a less common leadership attribute—“loving kindness.” And possession of this attribute (of caring, empathy, compassion for others, etc.) tends to separate so-called good leaders from the bad. Think Nelson Mandela versus Hitler. Both possessed the will and determination to succeed, but only one ruled with “loving kindness.”

Generally speaking, when it comes to making high-stakes decisions for a nation, good world leaders are the ones who care about their followers and lead with the best interests of their nation’s citizens in mind as a result. This does not mean every decision taken will be popular or even wise. But when leaders really care about serving the people, a nation’s followers can at least take comfort in the fact that any poor decision made was taken with a benevolent goal in mind, meaning improving the lives of a nation’s followers.

Martin Luther King Jr. put forth the notion that ambitious leaders can be great if they use their drive to serve others. In a famous speech entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” he preached:

If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

 And when it comes to judging Washington’s new main man in terms of his “greatness,” this idea of servant leadership appears particularly pertinent, on the surface at least, given Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. After all, controversial decisions being made by the Trump administration could be part of a well-intended effort to improve the general well-being of U.S. citizens, rather than enrich Trump’s friends, family, tribe, or party members.

I am not suggesting Trump is showing loving kindness to the world. But that isn’t his job. As POTUS, Trump’s job is to look out for U.S. citizens.  And so his motivation might be in the right place—despite the fact that many people disagree with his plans to put his nation first in multilateral negotiations, increase U.S. military spending, align U.S. interests with Russia, tear up existing trade agreements, build a border wall, approve controversial oil pipelines, increase coal mining, change tax laws, cut social programs, and reject environmental protection along with the right to have an abortion.

Unfortunately, having what it takes to really lead a nation with the interests of its people in mind is not common. To believe otherwise is naïve given the world in which we live, where political and corporate leaders all too often lead in order to increase their own wealth, control, and power, not to mention take care of other leaders, people who do not actually need any help.

In a TED video, George Ayittey speaks of an online discussion group challenged with naming just 20 “good (national) leaders” among the 204 heads of state that Africa had seen since 1960. The group struggled to name 15. If “good leader” was defined as someone who genuinely and sincerely put aside the interests of their own family, region, party, and business cronies and made tough decisions for the well-being of the people, I am not too sure that the exercise would generate much in the way of positive results for Asia, the Americas, or the European Union.

Recognizing the injustice in the corporate and political wealth redistribution systems, some wealthy business leaders (led by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) recognize their leadership responsibilities and set out to use their riches to help the world’s followers. Unfortunately, when examining the numerous examples of corporate malfeasance or corruption that have been uncovered over the past decades, these types of corporate leaders appear few and far between.

Despite possessing enormous stockpiles of wealth, today’s leaders tend to always believe they need more. Indeed, trying to ensure, through fair means or foul, that they can remain in power as long as possible seems to be the limit of the ambition of many of today’s leaders, who often have a greater sense of entitlement than they do of any responsibility to do “the right thing” for their followers. Meanwhile, the ecological, social, and financial “gaps” between the leaders and followers continue to widen. Even leaders who seem to start off with the best of intentions (think Mugabe or Chávez) often eventually forget about the needs of followers and focus on their own entitlement.

Perhaps Trump’s inauguration speech was just full of empty rhetoric. Maybe he is just out to use his “drive to win” to accumulate more personal power and wealth as head of the most powerful nation on the planet. But love him or hate him, Trump was elected by tapping into a widely felt belief that U.S. political elites have neglected their followers for too long. So, the question is whether Trump really shares that belief. Does he really want to lead because he has both a huge drive to win and a real desire to serve the people?

Simply put, Trump might have his own brand of “loving kindness.” After using his drive to win to take care of his own interests, he might now be genuinely focused on doing what he thinks needs to be done to improve the lives of the U.S. follower class. In other words, instead of using his Twitter account and unique style of spinning facts to be elected for his own benefit, he might have done so to be elected because he sees it as his job to help disenfranchised citizens.

The Fourth King of Bhutan is an example of a leader who put his followers first. One might disagree with some of his decisions around the different Pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that he established. Yet, it is tough to deny that he did what he deemed best for his country. For a monarch to ignore majority opinion and voluntarily insist that his country become a parliamentary democracy is almost unheard of. This act of “great” leadership meant that his personal power would be vastly reduced and that future generations of his family would have much diminished wealth, power, and control. Yet, the King thought this was the right thing to do for the well-being of his nation’s followers over the long term.

Leaders do not always seem to be the most adjusted individuals, which may be why many of world’s most powerful individuals (such as Putin, Duterte, Maduro, Kim Jong-un, Le Pen, etc.) do not appear to be the happiest people on the planet. Perhaps by not developing or listening to their own “caring” attribute of leadership, they are failing themselves as well as their followers. So, let’s hope Trump proves as adept at winning the public service game as he has at winning in the business game. If he wants to be a two-term U.S. president, he needs citizens who voted for him to support him again. And next time around, U.S. followers will judge him on what he has done, not what he says he will do on Twitter.

I may never agree with many of Trump’s political ideas and decisions. But as an Anglophone follower in Quebec, I am quite happy to accept language laws that abuse my own rights as an individual because I genuinely believe the provincial government sees its restrictive policy as the “right thing to do for the greater good of broader society.” And so, if President Trump walks his talk over the next few years and runs the country as a servant of the people, my trust and confidence in world leaders will be at least partially restored. Perhaps other heads of state will even follow Trump’s lead and start to really serve their citizens. If that happens, despite his stated intention to put the United States first, the new President of the United States might just help make the entire world a better place in the long term.