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David Noer: The lessons of Donald Trump’s leadership

David Noer: The lessons of Donald Trump’s leadership

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A major contribution of Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership was research that led to the publication of the book “The Lessons of Experience.”

One significant finding was that we can learn as much, if not more, from bad leaders as from good ones. In the spirit of a military after-action review, here is an assessment of requisite competencies of good leaders as they apply to our departing 45th president.

Praise publicly; blame privately. This is a fundamental leadership tenet. No one wants to be publicly chastised by his or her boss. It may serve the boss's frustration and anger but it hinders motivation and stifles creativity.

Donald Trump lost no opportunity, through Twitter, rallies, print and electronic media, to cut down, criticize and mock members of his team. This had two outcomes. It demoralized those he needed for support and it fueled his distorted self-concept as a powerful leader.

Be physically and emotionally present during a crisis. In his better days, prior to becoming Trump’s disinformation lackey, Rudy Giuliani exhibited a strong presence directly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. People want to see and emotionally feel their leaders during crisis.

In the depths of December with the country experiencing a record number of deaths and hospitalizations, Congress deadlocked over economic relief, and evidence of Russian hacking governmental functions, Trump was sulking in the White House, spinning false conspiracy theories and plotting revenge. The only crisis he seemed to realize was the clash of reality with his own fantasies regarding the election. An after-action observation is that leaders who let their own ego needs override their obligation to followers are predestined for derailment.

Seek and learn from feedback. We all have blind spots and the higher one resides in an organization, the harder it is to hear and accept non-confirming feedback. In nonpolitical environments a useful process is 360 degree feedback where peer, boss and subordinate assessments are compared with the leader’s self-evaluation. This process won’t work with presidents who must rely on trusted truth tellers. Truth tellers are secure and trusted enough to authentically speak truth to power. A historical example was Harry Hopkins, who actually lived in the White House and provided unfiltered feedback to Franklin Roosevelt.

Our 45th president saw disconfirming feedback as disloyal and killed (fired) the messengers. He sought affirmation, adulation and praise that expanded, rather than reduced his blind spot. An after-action observation is that this enlarged blind spot may have so distorted his grasp of reality that he actually believed that he won the election.

Embrace diversity. Business leaders understand that they can enhance profits if their organization reflects the race, gender and sexual orientations of their customers. They grasp that they can make better decisions if their staff and advisers have diverse ideas and perspectives. Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kerns Goodwin illustrates the political advantages in her book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

Donald Trump’s advisers are family members and old white men. He demeans opinions and perspectives that don’t support his one-dimensional views.

Exhibit emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a growing behavioral science branch. An emotionally intelligent leader understands and regulates his emotional responses and has the capacity to form empathetic relationships.

Empathy and self-understanding are core leadership skills in today’s volatile world. An after-action observation is that our self-described “very stable genius” brags of a high IQ that has yet to be demonstrated. What has been demonstrated is his abysmal EQ.

The primary lesson from Donald Trump’s leadership behavior is that effective leaders, both public and private, behave in the opposite manner. Regardless of occasional short-term achievements, continuity of this behavior is a sure route to eventual derailment.

These requisite leadership behaviors are a function of the person, not the party or platform. Ronald Reagan had similar agendas concerning deregulation and tax cuts. He scored significantly higher on leadership competencies, was elected twice and left office with a positive legacy. Our 45th president’s abysmal leadership created baggage that diluted his effectiveness, tarnished his legacy and likely cost him a second term.

David Noer writes a monthly column about leadership, organizational behavior and community issues. He can be reached at

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