Trumping Divisive Leadership

An image of Donald Trump speaking and gesturing into a microphone

Whenever Donald Trump speaks or tweets, die-hard supporters give him credit for boldly speaking his mind without concern for offending the politically correct. But the words issued by the embattled U.S. president are not always representative of his true feelings or beliefs, not to mention facts.

The record of Trump statements includes glaring falsehoods and contradictions because it reflects the man’s habit of stating whatever he thinks is in his personal interest at the time. The amount of thought that goes into this process obviously varies, but Trump’s communication skills are pretty much always in self-promotion or pandering mode.

President Trump is also shameless. As a result, instead of acting like a leader honestly out to “make America great again,” he is willing to attack anything his base thinks is wrong with America, even when doing so goes against the founding principles of his nation.

That is why businesspeople fleeing White House advisory councils over Trump’s response to the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia – where a civil rights activist was killed during a violent clash between people who support equal rights and people who don’t – should be applauded, not attacked. The loudest applause, of course, should go to Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck & Co., who was courageous enough to start the exodus.

The preamble to America’s Declaration of Independence insists all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Despite common belief, these principles were not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But if anything makes America great, it is the fact that the Constitution has been amended numerous times to reflect the slow progress of social justice.

Whether Trump knows it or not, he swore an oath to lead in a way that upholds the Constitution and all its amendments, including the Reconstruction ones that abolished slavery and established equal protections for all U.S. citizens following the Civil War. American presidents are even duty bound to not give “aid or comfort” to so-called enemies of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, for a slew of reasons, millions of Trump supporters don’t see a problem with the comfort that white supremacists and neo-Nazis are taking from his leadership. And since these people are also consumers, it is risky business for CEOs to take a stand against the man.

Walking away from Trump’s business advisory councils also makes it harder to influence public policy decisions that can encourage or discourage innovation and investment, facilitating or dampening economic growth.

Nevertheless, critics are dead wrong to claim corporate executives fleeing Trump’s orbit are somehow ignoring their duties to employees and shareholders by making political decisions rather than business ones.

With such a glaring failure of moral leadership at the top, it is desperately important that others stand up and speak out.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Public Policy Research, “CEOs are hired to improve and expand their companies’ value and to provide needed services and products to consumers. Federal policy is critical to that effort. Abandoning this rare opportunity to work directly with the White House in order to pursue left-wing politics harms not only the corporations, but also the Americans –black, white and brown – who work for them and rely upon their products and services.”

This argument ignores the many other responsibilities that come with good corporate leadership. Simply put, the United States has problems that leaders from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors share a responsibility to help address. “We have to think about what it means that our workers are worse off today than they were in the 1950s,” insists a recent commentary by U.S. financial sector CEO David Kotok, adding it is equally important to recognize what can happen when anger generated by economic hardship is manipulated. “Set up a straw man, and by and by, someone succumbs to the urge to drive his car into a group of people he has never met.”

Nobody is perfect. Good leaders understand this, which is why they reflect on their responsibilities and actions. They strive to identify mistakes and counter bias and ego to become better servants of their organizations and stakeholders. They understand that good leadership is about independent thinking and standing up for values, especially in the face of challenging situations that can lead to negative personal outcomes such as ridicule or scorn. To lead this way, good leaders are always open to contrary opinions and embrace ongoing skills and character development. That’s what being a good leader is all about. This is particularly true for political leaders.

As noted by Richard Neustadt, author of Presidential Power, occupants of the Oval Office tend to enter the White House “ignorant, innocent, and arrogant.” These liabilities can take years to overcome. Nevertheless, you can’t be a good president if you are not willing to try.

Delivered via teleprompter after the Charlottesville incident, Trump’s national address on Afghanistan in late August was clearly designed to try to convince Americans that he can reflect, admit mistakes and evolve as a leader. He told the nation everyone needs to follow the example of the heroic soldiers who work together to preserve the U.S. republic despite their different backgrounds. “That is because all service members are brothers and sisters. They are all part of the same family. It’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag and live according to the same law.”

Trump didn’t explain how this message fits with his tweet banning transgender heroes from continuing to serve in the military or his response to Charlottesville, which suggested both sides were equally to blame for the violence while arguing it is possible to stand with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, in a fight to protect statues of Confederate leaders who fought to maintain slavery, and still be a “fine” person. But his “same family” speech was positive enough to raise the hopes of wishful-thinking critics.

Unfortunately, as Trump himself has repeatedly argued, presidential speeches issued via teleprompters can’t always be trusted to represent real thoughts held by presidents (since such speeches are almost always written by other people). And just a day after calling on all Americans to help ease racial tensions, Trump – who has a long history of exploiting bigotry – held a supporter pep rally in Phoenix that showed why he is the most divisive U.S. president in history by returning to true form.

In a speech sprinkled with lies, Trump short-sightedly ridiculed Democratic and Republican politicians he needs to pass legislation. Playing the victim, he rewrote history to insist the media purposely twisted what he called his “perfect” response to Charlottesville to make him look bad. Trump attacked CNN for firing commentator Jeffery Lord (who was dismissed after tweeting a Nazi salute). And he further tore American unity apart by telling his followers not to worry about watching former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio be punished for disobeying a court order to stop systematically violating the rights of Latinos. “I think he’s going to be just fine,” insisted Trump, hinting he will use his presidential powers to pardon the alt-right idol.

After rallying his base with divisive rhetoric in Phoenix, Trump returned to his unity script the next day in Nevada, where he issued a call for national healing while reading from a teleprompter.

Simply put, Trump doesn’t understand or care why there should be no presidential ambiguity when it comes to intolerance, bigotry, racism and discrimination. And when he panders to the basest members of his base, his calculated (or miscalculated) actions send a scary message to the world, which is why recent covers of The Economist and Der Spiegel both sport an image of Trump in a suggestive KKK theme.


As an LA Times editorial entitled “Enough is Enough” noted: “With such a glaring failure of moral leadership at the top, it is desperately important that others stand up and speak out to defend American principles and values. This is no time for neutrality, equivocation or silence.”

As things stand, the 45th president of the United States does not understand good leadership. His behaviour is dangerously erratic, childish and divisive thanks to his unhealthy need for applause, which appears uncontainable due to what former U.S. director of National Intelligence James Clapper calls a “complete intellectual, moral and ethical void.”

Perhaps watching more and more CEOs choose to serve the country and their corporate stakeholders by taking a stand against his administration rather than supporting it will eventually cause Trump to reflect on his flaws as a leader. Perhaps not. Either way, when something far more important than profits is on the line, choosing not to be associated with someone who has repeatedly attacked the foundation of American greatness with a sledge hammer is a sound business decision.

4 responses on “Trumping Divisive Leadership

  1. Bill Robertson, MBA 1966

    As an American, a Western MBA, and a lifelong republican I am flabbergasted and ashamed of this president’s behavior. All I can hope for is that he resigns quickly when he realizes he is subjecting he and his family to prosecution over the Russian mess. Or maybe his ego will cause him to leave at his frustration of not being able to get anything done. Impeachment can be a slow process. The only other hope is if the whole Cabinet turns on him and demands that the Congress remove him before he starts another war.

    1. C. David Clark

      Couldn’t agree with you more, Bill. Thank you for saying so.

      However, I think your hoped-for options for his future removal are very remote. As you say, impeachment is a long and fraught process, seldom successful. I am not aware of any Cabinet removal of a sitting President, other than for reasons of either physical or obvious psychological problems.

      It appears to me to be up to both the GOP moderates or the vast numbers of former Trump voters who are not idealogically committed to his base to join the Democrats in reducing the Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress in 2018.
      How confident are we of that?
      David Clark
      MBA ’66

  2. Silent Majority


    Rather than writing leftist hit pieces against Trump, your time would be better spent analyzing why Trump commands the adulation of millions of working-class Americans. That’s a real lesson in leadership, that would offer better insights than this virtue-signaling agitprop. But I understand, no chance to gain some brownie points with left-leaning academia by writing something like that.

    It’s funny though, how your courses and Leadership Under Fire seem to touch upon the themes of leadership, courage, truth. Would be refreshing to see these from you. Be a leader Gerald, take the bold & courageous move of critically analyzing how Trump was able to pull of his historic victory, analyze his leadership style and give us some truth.

  3. Michael Monette

    Here is a list of six books that address “why Trump won”.

    I’ve recently read HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper) which was recommended to me by some very learned individuals, as it opened their eyes quite a bit to the realities of one slice of American society. Yes, it is a good read.

    Per the Ivey article, focusing in on CEO behaviour struck me as being well aligned to a business school journal.

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