‘Whatever you do, don’t mention Donald Trump’. This was the final bit of advice I received from colleagues as I prepared for my trip to the US to speak to Vistage CEO advisory groups in Boston and Chicago on the topic of The Trusted Executive. I don’t know about you, but whenever someone tells me not to do something, like eating the last chocolate in the box, I get this overwhelming urge to do it anyway!
Sure enough, halfway through my workshop all was going well, I’d carefully explored the nine habits of trust with an attentive, enthusiastic audience and then I clicked for the next slide and a big picture of Donald Trump appeared slap bang in centre of the screen. ‘How do you think this leader would fare against the nine habits that inspire trust?’ I bellowed. The words hung in the air like a stale odour, the silence was deafening, I stared at my shoes and quietly counted to ten. Then a brave soul piped up, ‘I think Donald Trump is brave’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘whatever you might think of his opinions I don’t think anyone can say that Donald Trump is not a master at habit no.8; being brave’.
The ice had been broken so I pressed on, ‘What other strengths does he have?’. ‘He’s open, what you see is what you get’ offered a voice from my left. ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘you might not like what he tweets at 3am in the morning, but we could all agree that is not hiding anything, he excels at habit no.4; being open’. ‘And he’s certainly delivered in the world of business’ suggested a lady at the back of the room. ‘Yes’, I agreed, ‘he got the deals done in his business career and people were so tired of mainstream politicians who hadn’t delivered on their promises that enough voters were willing to give him a chance of delivering in the world of politics’.
We were on a roll so I upped the ante, ‘Now, how about his weaknesses? What are the habits that undermine trust in Donald Trump?’ Silence. More inner counting. ‘Well, can anyone really say that he is humble?’ asked a guy pointing at habit no.6 in the diagram of the nine habits. ‘And how about habit no.2; being consistent?’ offered his colleague, ‘The best he can do on that is being consistently inconsistent’. Laughter broke the tension. What a relief! We’d managed to have a conversation about Donald Trump’s leadership without anyone in the room getting up and storming out. I ventured to summarise:-
‘As a researcher on trust, what I find fascinating about Donald Trump is that he is much stronger on the nine habits of trust than many would expect him to be. If you focus on how he behaves, rather than what he says, you can quickly identify the habits where, compared to traditional establishment politicians, he scores highly; being brave, evangelising, being open, delivery, being honest. Like all of us he has his blind spots; coaching, being consistent, being humble but, overall, Donald Trump breaks the mould of the traditional, and mistrusted, establishment leaders. That is why he was elected to the White House by the vast underbelly of society who are not sat in this room right now, but who are the people who come to work each day in your businesses and who buy your goods and services up and down the country’.
After the workshop, I reflected privately that rather than arguing about Donald Trump, decrying him and castigating him as the new Antichrist, leaders of all persuasions ought to be asking what they can learn from him. When it comes to inspiring trust with a sceptical, cynical modern workforce, business leaders in particular could learn a lot from Donald Trump about being evangelical, about being open and about being brave. Don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of Donald Trump or his politics, yet neither am I arrogant enough to think there is nothing I can learn about leadership from a man who has been voted President of the United States. After all, habit no.6 of my own model is ‘being humble’ and, as we know, people who build their own glass houses should be wary of throwing too many sticks and stones!