Trumping Character

Image of a Trump "Make America Great Again" sign

As the battle to replace him in the White House raged, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a sadly ironic presidential proclamation. Calling on all Americans to put their best foot forward, he officially named seven days in mid-October as National Character Counts Week. “I call upon public officials, educators, parents, students, and all Americans to observe this week with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”

At the time, of course, Hillary Clinton was expected to succeed Obama, but not because of her character. Americans were expected to elect her as a candidate widely seen as the “lesser of two evils.” But U.S. voters shocked the world by going the other way instead, handing the Oval Office to Donald Trump.

If you just watched Trump’s victory speech, you could easily expect him to do a good job as POTUS. But while a politician’s campaign comments often have little bearing on actions later taken in office, the president-elect didn’t even try to present a socially responsible platform. To win the White House, he strategically convinced targeted voters that America could be made “great again” by throwing national character out the window.

There is no question that Trump is a demagogue who beat Clinton by pandering to the basest of human instincts, which is why shell-shocked CBC commentators were comfortable, at least momentarily, discussing whether or not his victory could be fairly compared with Hitler’s rise to power. The answer to that question is no.

If truth be told, Trump hasn’t really said or done anything that hasn’t been done or said by numerous other world leaders who are not compared to mass murderers. And that list includes some previous U.S. presidents.

But this is supposedly the age of social responsibility. And a Clinton victory would have at least created a world with women leading Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, not to mention the U.S. Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund.  Instead, as New Yorker Editor David Remnick observed, America will soon “bid farewell to the first African-American President — a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit — and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy.”

According to Remnick, it is impossible to react to the election with “anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.” But that isn’t really true. In fact, the really unsettling thing is that millions of Americans welcomed Trump’s victory without any revulsion or anxiety whatsoever.

During the campaign, Trump supporters routinely overlooked the president-elect’s questionable behaviour and personality flaws, arguing that the man’s business skills and commitment are all that is required to successfully lead the most powerful nation on the planet. For example, Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, told CNBC that having a charitable character has little bearing on whether or not someone would make a good president. This line of thinking is wrong.

Being 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. Good leadership requires having what Ivey calls leader character to ensure that competencies are deployed in ethical and effective ways for all stakeholders. Leader character is also what ensures commitment is aimed at selfless goals.

Whether Trump’s supporters see it or not, character in the White House matters more today than ever before, especially if the goal is to make America great. After all, the thing that set America apart in the past was its ability to create wealth while maintaining at least a perceived commitment to religious tolerance, equality and freedom.

I am not arguing that Clinton was an ideal alternative. My point here is that the world already had a serious leadership crisis before Americans went to the polls — and it has just been exacerbated by the U.S. election of an egomaniac known for lying and promoting greed, not to mention making racist remarks, joking about climate change, and groping women.

The pivotal role that character plays in good leadership has been made clear by Ivey Business School research into the causes of the 2008 financial crisis. But as Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts notes in “The Rising Cost of Bad Leadership,” the expensive lessons learned in the aftermath of that crisis already appear forgotten as high-profile cases of appalling corporate behaviour continue to undermine capitalism. And now, the country most responsible for the near-collapse of the global financial system less than a decade ago has just handed the White House to a businessman comfortable with acting in highly appalling ways.

Trump could prove to be a strong president who creates American jobs in the medium term. But the example he has set as a leader is far from presidential and his election does not bode well for people who care about social responsibility and economic sustainability.