Trumpeting Fair Debate

Image of President Donald Trump attending a National Prayer Breakfast

Billionaire bad boy Donald Trump surprised the world by winning the U.S. Republican nomination race. He then surprised the world again by winning the White House. Shortly after, I penned an IBJ editorial entitled “Trumping Character,” which essentially argued that Trump’s election was a major disservice to leadership development.

I noted that Trump supporters routinely overlooked his questionable behaviour and personality flaws as they argued that the man’s business skills and commitment are all that is required to successfully lead the most powerful nation on the planet. I argued that this line of thinking is wrong, pointing out that a good head of state requires being a good leader who goes about nation-building in a sustainable and socially responsible way. And this requires more than competencies and commitment. My point wasn’t that Hillary Clinton was an ideal alternative. My point was that the world already had a serious leadership crisis before U.S. voters went to the polls—and that the crisis had been seriously exacerbated by the election of an egomaniac known for lying and promoting greed, not to mention making racist remarks, joking about climate change, and groping women.

I am pleased to report that at least one reader thought my editorial was “one of the most progressive and thought provoking commentaries” to follow the U.S. election. I am also pleased others thought I was just an idealistic liberal who doesn’t understand Trump supporters. “You liberals are such hypocrites with your holier than thou attitudes that don’t know the first thing about running a business much less a country,” one reader argued. As another saw it, “The problem that many in academia have is most of you are liberals and only see your common thought through one prism, you totally disregard other points of view. I recall when liberals were people who wanted to find common ground through discussion.”

For the record, IBJ welcomes all comments, provided they are relatively respectable, because we exist to serve as an online hub for thought leadership, and getting positive and negative feedback alike indicates that our content is stimulating thought. But while IBJ is published by Western University’s Ivey Business School, it should be noted that the editorials it presents do not necessarily represent the school’s academic community (which I’d argue knows more than a little about running a business). Simply put, IBJ operates as an independent entity and so the editorials it posts only represent my opinions as editor. While I have more than one degree, I am not an academic. I am a journalist with experience as a corporate executive. (My journalism experience—again, for the record—includes covering business and markets at not-so-liberal media outlets like The National Post and the recently deceased Canadian Business magazine.)

That said, I am not sure all critics of “Trumping Character” got my main point. And I suspect that will also be the case with “Alternative Leadership,” a commentary by IBJ contributor Mark Hollingworth, who argues that President Trump could very well set a much-needed positive example for other world leaders to follow despite his character flaws. He writes: “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.”

Keep in mind that Trump didn’t just surprise the world by making it to the White House. He kept the biggest surprise for after his inauguration by doing what he promised to do on the campaign trail. In fact, President Trump is even surprising some supporters by issuing executive orders without any apparent concern for stepping on toes, burning bridges, or ensuring a shot at a second term in office.

An article in The Atlantic recently argued that keeping campaign promises isn’t anything special, citing research that suggests politicians (especially Canadian ones) rarely let voters down by making empty promises. But I think it is safe to say that many of Trump’s liberal-minded critics, not to mention members of the Republican Party establishment that rode his coattails to power, thought Trump was just saying whatever he thought would land him in the Oval Office without really planning to walk his talk. And that does not appear to be the case.

As Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza wrote:

The assumption—even after Trump was elected—seems to be that he either a) didn’t really believe many of the things he said on the campaign trail or b) wouldn’t spend the political capital necessary to attempt their implementation.

The first week of the Trump presidency suggests that those assumptions were deeply misguided. Trump meant exactly what he said and appears totally committed to executing on the campaign promises he made in spite of the furore.

 But it’s more than that, too. This is the Trump who won 306 electoral votes and almost 63 million votes. (Yes, I am aware Clinton got almost 66 million.) People voted for this Trump. He did almost nothing—far less than your average politician—to obfuscate or fudge his views.

While he didn’t attach a ton of specifics to his proposals, it’s very hard for me to believe that the vast majority of people who voted for Trump expected anything other than what they got from him in this first week. In fact, they are likely overjoyed that Trump—unlike most pols—is doing what he said he would.

And according to Hollingworth, if Trump is truly doing the things he is doing because he genuinely thinks it will improve the lot of disenfranchised U.S. citizens, then he deserves credit for serving as a role model. “I may never agree with many of Trump’s political ideas and decisions,” he says. “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.”

I respect Hollingworth. But I do not fully agree with his opinion on this matter. We both see a leadership crisis. And we both think too many national leaders fail to really lead for their citizens. But I am not at all convinced Trump’s motivation—even if it is all about serving Joe and Jane Average—makes him a good example on the leadership front. In my humble opinion, good leadership requires having what the Ivey Business School calls leader character in order to ensure that leader commitment is aimed at selfless goals while leader competencies are deployed in honest, ethical, and effective ways for all stakeholders.

I actually do think Trump is doing the world a bit of a favour by making leadership a hot topic of debate. But as I noted in “Trumping Character,” I also believe that the character of national leaders matters more today than ever before, especially in the United States. After all, the thing that “made America great” in the past was its ability to create wealth while maintaining at least a perceived commitment to religious tolerance, equality, and freedom. So, while Trump could still prove to be a strong president who creates U.S. jobs in the medium term, he is not a good role model for good leadership.

Feel free to send comments that agree or disagree. But please don’t argue IBJ isn’t open to debate.