Help Me Build Wisdom About Leadership

Today’s Read2Lead is different than nearly anything I’ve written.  I REALLY want feedback and have one supposition and one question for you.  I would like to write more about this (here but also in wider forums), and I am looking for you to help me think about this.

SuppositionWe all know and would hide from, run from, or perhaps courageously confront or expose – an abusive parent, boss, teacher, CEO, doctor, minister, etc.  We know well the behaviors, they engage in. They:

  • Don’t admit fault
  • Never apologize
  • Blame others for their mistakes
  • Punish others (embarrassing them, firing them, defaming them)
  • Gaslight others (making it look like the other’s perception of reality is unreal)
  • Pretend they know things they don’t
  • Will at times directly lie about what they have said or done
  • Act like they are smarter than everyone else
  • Take credit for work that is not theirs

Question:  Why would we tolerate (I assume the vast majority don’t “support” these) behaviors when they are the behaviors of the most powerful leader in our country?  Republicans!  Please read on:

Important Points about my question:  (1) I am a Democrat, and to most of us, Trump’s behavior is obviously wrong, but I decidedly do NOT want Dems to join with me in a chorus of woes and condemnation of Trump.  There are plenty of blogsites to do that!  Instead, (2) I am really trying to be rational about this, and my point is NOT to put Republicans on the defensive and Dems on the offensive.  It is to honestly ask:  Should we justify these behaviors that we would almost certainly condemn in any “local” area of our lives, when they occur at this highest level?

To put the question differently:  Under what circumstances – local or presidential – is it good – or even just acceptable – for a leader to act in this fashion?  Have you seen it in a CEO or a Governor or a Pastor, where you would say, “Sure, it’s not the greatest, but it’s necessary and defensible.”

Like all of you, most of whom are American but many are not, I care very much about our country’s leadership, AND I also care so much about what we think about leadership, how we talk about leadership, what’s acceptable, when and by whom?  I hope we can advance that inquiry.

My preference is that you COMMENT, but I’m happy for you to reply privately to me at on the question which I repeat one more time:  Why would we tolerate (I assume the vast majority don’t “support” these) behaviors when they are the behaviors of the most powerful leader in our country?

I thank you in advance for engaging with me on this so-important question, as we

Strive to lead with our best self!


  • Simply put, I need my paycheck and therefore I have to put up with bad behavior.
    Having an ‘I won’t tolerate’ stance just isn’t something a lot of us can afford.
    I am looking for a new job, but it takes time to find the right fit.
    Besides, I don’t want to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.
    In the meantime I try to learn from the bad examples and make sure I don’t exhibit the same behaviors.

    • Carrie,
      Your comment is my favorite. It goes back to evolution. You don’t challenge the biggest gorilla because you depend on him for food and shelter . . . until a better gorilla comes along.
      We need to use the tools of law, regulations, unions, persuasion, courage, and the strategy to pick our battles to deal with those whom Stanford Professor Robert Sutton referred to in his book The No Asshole Rule. One of our greatest powers is to say: This – blaming, punishing, admitting no fault, lying, deceiving, gaslighting – is NOT leadership.
      Don’t jump in the fire, but figure out a way with others to put out the damn fire!

  • The easy answer is, of course we shouldn’t. But in reality we often do so. We do so with tyrant CEO’s (Steve Jobs), elected officials (the stories of ‘beloved’ Senators throwing things at their staff are legion), and maybe the best examples are coaches (how long did Bobby Knight last in the business?). The reason we do so are probably complicated, but to me it comes down to the tribal instinct to defend someone from attack from the “outside” if they are perceived to be “one of us”. That certainly is a huge part of it in politics and sports. Another factor is that being mean, ruthless and uber aggressive is still (on some level) to be aligned with winning and with being an alpha male. We often believe (mistakenly) that this is what makes people successful. So to me, it isn’t a great surprise that so many people tolerate this behavior in a President. The tougher question is how do we stop doing this. And that, I am afraid, in this polarized society that we live in, I don’t have an answer to.

    • John,
      Thanks for your thoughts. You have seen this up close in a state capitol and in DC.
      One comment. You wrote:
      “being mean, ruthless and uber aggressive is still (on some level) to be aligned with winning and with being an alpha male.”
      If I were one of your English teachers at Notre Dame, I would chide you on your use of the passive voice “is still…to be aligned.” But seriously, what I am suggesting is a revolution where we flat-out say: NO. This is not an alpha male – not an alpha male homo sapiens. This is a weak yet dangerous being who can sink our company, take people’s lives and liberty, terrorize others. This may be an alpha gorilla, and there are some bad gorilla tribes. But not all silver-back gorillas rule with fear and brutishness; many successful ones do what humans have done: collaborate! Yes, they defend from attacks from outside, and they ward off challenges to maintain order, but the good ones look out for the tribes. A wonderful PBS film captures one such tribe. But, importantly, as good as some gorillas are, we are NOT gorillas! We have the ability to consciously COLLABORATE and to collectively ask: Is this a serious attack? Are these outsiders (Trump’s latest is to withhold aid from California? Seriously?) Human leaders can aks: Is it time for me to retire – even if I like the trappings and though people are sucking up to me and telling me we can’t go on without you?
      My point is we need to take a stand and declare that abusive behavior is not leadership.
      There are the rarest exceptions! The house is on fire and you throw you kid out a first floor window. Someone is attacking your home and you shoot at them. But humans have the amazing capacity – despite this god-awful partisan gorilla-tribal behavior – to step back and solve problems. The man (or woman), the Trump (or populist Dem president of the future) who declares they know better than all is not a leader but a fool and we should insist on calling it what it is.

  • The president’s behavior is appalling to me. That being said, I think I tolerate it because I do not feel there is much I can do about what he says. What can the average person do? Complain about it? Does no good. I chose to act in a positive and kind manner to all those I encounter, whether in person or on social media. We can only set good examples of citizenship for the younger generation so they do not think the current president’s behavior is acceptable. Thanks, Nancy S, Michigan

    • Nancy,
      Thanks for your candor. And who can fault any of us for staying in our zone of control, the places where we can make a difference.
      I am hoping that within our space of dialogue we can ask truly fundamental questions as I am attempting to here: Do we believe it is leadership when someone – parent, teacher, or president – indulges in these punishing behaviors? Can we not develop a consensus that such behaviors are simply disqualifying?

  • We “tolerate” these behaviors from our elected officials because we cannot change it until the next election. I am an independent voter, second level manager and mother. As a mother I did not tolerate this behavior and my children have grown into successful adults, parents and employees. As a manager I attempt to coach all staff into desired behaviors. While I may not achieve 100% success all the time there is usually a marked improvement.

    • Susan,
      I have perhaps completely misread your comments. But my point is not that you, Trump, or I need to work hard to “not tolerate this behavior [in our] children,” or to “coach all staff” to be better. That is quite the opposite of what I am saying. I am saying that I need to encourage my children not to tolerate my hypocritical or disempowering behaviors and I need my staff and my students to coach me to not be an ignorant, insecure autocrat who indulges in the behaviors I bullet pointed above. I am saying that we need to end our toleration of so-called leaders who do these blaming, punishing, gaslighting, pretending and pretentious and deceitful behaviors. They should not be justified by the enduring animalistic belief that we (children) need an alpha dog to lead the way. This ancient myth continues to empower weak and sick people to parade as leaders, when they simply are not.

  • Dan, this article is provocative. This is the first of its kind that I’ve seen this direct from you. I wonder if this is your raw emotions or if you took some time to think and then this is your Monday Reflection on the U.S. Presidency??? I’m not sure. I think that when you pose the question you have to assume that other people, namely Republicans don’t see any of this same behavior in Democrats. Moreover, it would seem that you assume Democrats (at the colleague level), if they see any of the behavior you mentioned, will address and seek to get the “powers that be among Dems to correct the behavior you are speaking of in this article”. For the sake of being fair, if we set the control and unchanging factor to “many US citizens don’t like their current leadership”, does that mean that the following behavior has not been witnessed, seen, experienced in other elected parties. U.S. citizens find out the truth by experience, not by what is said. It isn’t until we have to come to the government, need help or engage with US agencies and elected officials that we really learn the truth. I am uncertain if the question can be answered by everyone. A popularity poll can be taken by all but I’m not sure everyone can answer the questions below. I know you asked the question but who can answer the question honestly without taking sides?
    Don’t admit fault
    Never apologize
    Blame others for their mistakes
    Punish others (embarrassing them, firing them, defaming them)
    Gaslight others (making it look like the other’s perception of reality is unreal)
    Pretend they know things they don’t
    Will at times directly lie about what they have said or done
    Act like they are smarter than everyone else
    Take credit for work that is not theirs

    • Taneisha,
      Thanks for responding. I honestly believe we must ask this question – with the bullet points you copied from the post – REGARDLESS of party. We must assume that there absolutely could be an autocratic, hyper-populist, ego-driven Democratic president. I’m not an historian, but the case could be made that when FDR tried to pack the court to get the ends he wanted he offered that kind of leadership: trust me, because I know more than the other branches.
      The reason I posed the question the way I did, and the reason I am saying there could be a Democratic abuser of power, is that it’s high time we call autocratic abuse leaders just what they are, whether clad in a pinstripe suit, Silicon Valley sweats, a Red or Blue party color. They are not leaders in that leaders empower others to face hard questions. It’s time for us all to give up on the singular, so-called “heroic” individual leader. Such leaders treat us as weak children. Will we respond as such? Or will we grow up? The time has come for us to grow up and demand everyday leadership, not stunted, disturbed people pretending they are our heroes.

  • I think that I (and many citizens) tolerate it because we don’t know what we can do in response or to prevent this, other than toshare our opinions with others and on social media. I think it is also because we confer power to the president and respect our electoral system (even though we might not agree with the result). The whole “not my president” phrase reflects these ideas as well, that he may be in a position of authority and we tolerate it, but we do not see him as our leader.

    • May,
      Thanks for weighing in. I agree: “We don’t know what we can do in response or to prevent this.” The answer in my mind is representative democracy. Say what you think is right. Engage others in discussion. I suggest we all reject autocratic, dictatorial leadership for what it is: ignorant and destructive. I say that to you as a student in my class. If I’m making no sense, use every power you have to compel me to make sense. And the same is true for our government. “Not my president” is a foolish statement in the sense that he has been elected; he is our president. Until he is not.

  • I say this not because I agree with it but to your question, if an organization…and it’s leader(ship)…is achieving the organization’s goals, ends, results, etc., how much do the means matter? And to whom? I could see how a results-oriented board (or other body) would tolerate these “means” behaviors if its getting the results it wants. I would suggest that there are boards/governing bodies that embrace a win-at-all-cost attitude and turn a blind eye on behaviors such as those mentioned.

    • Mark,
      I believe this is a powerful question you are asking. Wouldn’t it be great if we actually probed these kinds of “means” and the costs that result.
      The “means” are often treated as though they are somehow unreal. Presidents, for example, anguish as they should over the potential loss of life; but these “means” are often underestimated, while the ends are overestimated. Look at the Iraq War. Bush 43 wrote a beautiful letter to his Bush 41 about the weight on his soul. But did he really listen when Powell and others told him, “break it and you own it?” What WERE the ends – seen through 20-20 retrospect? Sectarian violence that remains, including Iraqi Kurds now caught up in Trump’s rash decision to let Turkey loose on our allies there.
      And what were the results of the so-called “necessary means” to eliminate the (non-existent WMDs?): 2000+ American fatalities, thousands of casualties, continuing suicides and health risks, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed.
      An empowered chief of staff and great processes of deliberation won’t end all wars, but the prideful presidents of Vietnam – Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon – and of Iraq – Bush 43 and now Obama in Turkey/Syria/Iraq – are given far more deference than is deserved. Smart presidents empower others. Fools disempower.
      The means matter!

  • We should not tolerate this kind of behavior at any level, especially at the highest position of office. Comparing the president to the highest point of the organizational structure, the vision, mindset, and decisions made at the top most certainly influences each subsequent level of business. The president has violated most of practices of leadership we are learning today (depending on perspective). Regardless of ones perception of his leadership capabilities, we should look at the result of his leadership in the white house, government and the nation; the culture of our nations government is more toxic and polarized than ever, how about the record setting white house staff turn over rate, constant drama on the news, cover ups, etc. The consequences of politician’s turning a blind eye are starting to unfold. Ultimately, this has allowed for more abuse by the president, and unfortunately, it currently seems like it is out of republican control given the current impeachment inquiry.

    • Anthony,
      As you’d imagine, I sympathize with your view that this style of leadership from the top will seep into all systems below. You lost me on the last phrase that this is “out of republican control.” I’m not sure what you meant by that. Love for you to clarify.

  • Were I in a position to actually have an impact (beyond my impact at the ballot box or otherwise in support of a presidential candidate running against him, of course), I’d like to think that I would “act” in ways that would demonstrate my intolerance of this behavior, rather than just voice my disapproval, condemnation, etc. Hopefully, enough people will express their intolerance at the ballot box in the fall of 2020. The Democrats in Congress are currently in a position to not tolerate this behavior with action, and they are in the process of doing that now through the impeachment process. The only other people whose intolerance could currently have a meaningful impact are the Republicans in Congress and in the administration. I believe they tolerate this behavior because they have made a few calculations: 1) As awful as the behavior is, they are getting some important things that they want (a tougher policy on immigration, a tax bill that benefits the wealthy, a more conservative Federal judiciary); 2) It is politically risky for legislators to express and act to stop the behavior, because they may become vulnerable to a primary challenge by someone who supports the president (see, for example, Justin Amash, Michigan Republican turned Independent), or they may be punished by the leadership of their party (through the loss of committee assignments, etc.); 3) It is risky for members of the administration to express or act in opposition, because they could lose their jobs; and 4) The result of opposing the president’s behavior could cause him — and the Republican Party — to lose the White House to a Democrat, which to them would be worse than keeping Donald Trump in the White House. So in this circumstance, it seems that transactional principles win out over moral principles.

    • David B,
      These are wonderful, honest reflections on the workings of realpolitik. It is quite astounding that nearly every Republican who has opposed the President has either already retired, announced their retirement, or switched parties (a la Justin Amash). We cannot know, but can imagine, that Democrats faced with the same kind of intimidation by their president would be similarly if not equally cautious about calling him out. There were Democratic votes to impeach Clinton and Republican votes to impeach Nixon, so we’d have to reckon with that somehow. Are the times that different?
      But the main point I hear you making is that authority that is willing to use – if not abuse – its power can silence people (as it surely did at Wells Fargo, Enron, and let me jump to the extreme, dictatorial regimes like Stalin’s USSR, Nazi Germany, and so many others).
      I remain astounded that the voters and the stewards of a Representative Democracy built upon the centrality of processes like the rule of law would tolerate a president openly seeking to undermine that very process, right before their eyes.
      That absence of courage and integrity should startle us all.

  • I think a lot of our behavior is a function of the relationship we’ve had with our parents. I know that when I was growing up, my father had the full authority in our household, authority that was never questioned or we’d suffer the consequences. I don’t necessarily blame him, because he was, in turn, acting in a way that reflected his own upbringing. When we go along with, tolerate, and enable those who abuse their positions and abuse us, we’re following a pattern that may well have begun in childhood. We don’t want to stand up to our boss, our religious leader, our elected official…because we’re afraid of the consequences. Nevertheless, we suffer very damaging consequences if we do NOT take action, too.

  • It is now three months since this Reading article was written by Dan. All the more good questions to ask as the U.S. Senate will vote on the impeachment next week. One problem I have had with political parties is that they will not correct their own members, but instead defend them as long as they tow the line. Essentially the ends justify the means. So if Trump thinks his re-election is of benefit to the Nation, he can do anything to get re-elected? Thousands show up to see Trump and hear what he has to say.

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