The qualities of an entrepreneurial business leader may have contributed significantly to the success of the Trump campaign. But is this a sound basis for thinking that these qualities will make a successful President?
Donald Trump’s relationship with his core followership was a particularly close one from the primaries to election day. This gave him an unexpected advantage in a most unconventional election. An election in which a range of factors — emails, indiscretions and more — eventually placed both candidates at the mercy of a volatile mass of floating voters as fickle as Twitter trends.
In these circumstances, the intense loyalty of Trump’s core followership proved contagious and, arguably, decisive. Business psychology might provide some insights into the nature of this game-changing leader-follower relationship, and maybe some of the implications.
In a recent television interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS, Donald Trump spoke directly to followers who may have been involved in acts of violence. The President-elect was unequivocal, “I am so saddened to hear that, and I say, ‘Stop it’,” in the manner of a controlling parent scolding the child who has stepped out of line. And added: “I will say it right to camera, ‘Stop it’.”
Trump’s framing of himself as parent to the follower as child is not uncommon among leaders in business. Business psychologist Eric Berne describes complementary leader-follower relationships in which subordinates are comfortable with a childlike dependency on a leader who bears the burden of responsibility and vision.
It’s not that being the entrepreneur’s subordinate makes you a childish person. But the childlike submission may be how you fit into the leader’s frame when you go to work.
The parent-child relationship is perhaps most common with entrepreneurial leaders — the “concertmasters” of capitalism. Steve Jobs famously claimed to be like a great conductor who may not be as talented as the instrumentalists but has a knack of bringing them together just right. A little narcissism seems to help too.
The psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby examined how the relentless self-confidence of narcissists, taking on seemingly impossible challenges, can be infectious and inspiring. Followers will often work to support them even though unlikely to receive any personal support in return.
Berne’s research revealed a third category in the leader-follower mix — the adult.
An adult-adult leader-follower relationship is also complementary, but typically more complex and nuanced than, for example, parent-child. The idea of an adult-adult relationship between political leaders and citizen-followers underpins the principles of one-person one-vote and open political debate in a mass democracy such as the US.
It was how Barack Obama perceived his relationship with his followers who wanted to reject the result of the election when he reminded them, “No one said democracy is easy”.
So, is American democracy ready for Trump the business president. Probably not.
The French social theorist Michel Foucault highlighted the paradox that in the big capitalist democracies people save their freedoms for leisure and elections, while meekly accepting all kinds of constraints on speech and behaviour at work. This is particularly so in the US.
Home ownership and lack of public health care combine with freedom of political expression to make you a Hell’s Angel at night, but a model worker during the working day, to pay the mortgage and stay on the company health care plan.
So, while you might play the child for the business leader, you want to be an adult with your political leaders. This will not make it easy for Trump to convert campaign leadership into presidential leadership.
Could Trump make the transition? Probably.
In a very influential paper called “The Romance of Leadership”, psychologist James Meindl, and co-researchers, showed how the qualities of leaders in Western cultures are often constructed by their followers. Once the person has the “leader” label in popular consciousness, people set about putting into the leader’s image the things they want her or him to be — like a wishing well.
Trump is clearly possessed of considerable intelligence. To paraphrase Star Trek’s doctor “Bones” McCoy, as he examined an injured alien, “There’s intelligence, Jim, but not as we know it.”
But Trump’s track record suggests that one aspect of that intelligence is an ability to tune into the wishing well. Whether he can or will tune in to his new All-American wishing well remains to be seen.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Psychology, Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus.