Watching the rise of President Donald Trump, we ask if it’s time to dump or delete all those books by the experts on how to succeed in business or politics. Love or loathe him, all can agree he doesn’t play by the usual rules. He nonetheless defeated some 20 other major-party candidates on his path to the White House, also gaining a historic number of Republican primary votes and collecting wall-to-wall media attention.
Do the world’s leading experts need to recalculate their advice or is it only a matter of time before the usual rules bring Trump to defeat? His willingness to violate norms leaves some fearing doom of the American experiment in democracy. But it is that very eagerness to implode existing structures that makes his fans adore him. They take the resistance he encounters as proof he’s fighting the good fight against an out-of-touch and corrupt establishment.
Consider this common wisdom from political conventions of the past, at least when displayed by those we once saw as great and insightful leaders:
- If bad news is coming, get out in front of it.
- To get legislation passed, be a consistent and credible source of expertise.
- When you have greatly erred, admit it publicly and outline steps to prevent future occurrences.
- Humility helps prevent disastrous decision-making.
- Unnecessarily antagonizing a reporter will backfire on you.
- Independent voters in the middle decide elections, so politicians should focus on them.
Trump, without embarrassment or hesitation, disregards all these tenets. Consider the drip-drip of bad news out of the White House, widely varied messages to Congress, the refusal to apologize for refusing to apologize, omnipresent boasting, declaring media the “enemy of the people” and a laser-like focus on pleasing his base. The combination is not coincidental.
But as much as one may “love winning,” the reality is that his legislative priorities remain stuck on the runway: repealing Obamacare, tax reform and infrastructure funding. Even with Republicans holding the White House, both houses of Congress and more often than not prevailing at the U.S. Supreme Court, his list of accomplishments is surprisingly diminutive.
Gallup polling labels Trump’s approval ratings “unusually low, unusually early.” They have reached record lows for a president’s first year in office and sit within 15 points of Nixon’s numbers at his resignation. On the other hand, Newsweek recently asserted that the “people who loved Donald Trump in November largely still love him in July.” Visit the right neighborhood in the right part of the United States and it’s not difficult to find Trump campaign signs still displayed proudly.
True, leaders who question assumptions and toss outdated norms can improve their success rate. Trump, by example, demonstrated that some who voted for Barack Obama could be converted to Trump voters and — equally valuable to him — others who turned out for Obama could readily be persuaded to stay home in spite of Obama’s strong endorsement of Hillary Clinton. We nonetheless decline to cease advising leaders to attend to core values such as empathy, clarity and purpose.
If Trump does succeed, it will not be at being “presidential.” Instead he offers a destination so different from the present that he will have gotten there because of, not in spite of, flouting the advice of experts, ignoring well-established customs and praising qualities, traits and behavior previously deemed repugnant. This may be his goal; the prerequisite question for other leaders is what they hope for.
If it is to win within the current system and eliminate the dinosaurs among the competition, new methods and questioning assumptions are entirely appropriate. If you instead want to demolish an existing marketplace or political system, then feel free to start by tossing out the entirety of the wisdom of the ages and advising your experts to jog on.
Just keep in mind that when burning down a building from the inside, you are not guaranteed an escape route. If an approval rating in the 30 percent range is tolerable for you or your business, then by all means please feel free to give it a try. Someone has to star in future case studies.