Trump U – What I’m Learning – And You?

Reading for Leading has always been about “everyday leadership.”  Leadership knocks every day and calls to everyday people, who don’t just lead down, but up and across the hierarchies of life. I write today about a high-level leader but with this important proviso.  I am not writing about him primarily to argue about him and whether my assessments are true.  I am writing about President Trump because he is such a vivid example from which we can look in one direction – towards solid leadership theory/research – and in the other direction – at our personal leadership behaviors.*

Today, I open with the core of Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner’s (K&P) The Leadership Challenge.  K&P have just come out with an all-new 6th edition and have had their work tested through hundreds of thousands of surveys and research studies by hundreds of scholars.  In my class, I call the book our “bible,” because if you’re only going to have one leadership book, it should be this one.  They write about 4 characteristics and 5 practices.

Leadership Characteristics.  Four (4) characteristics have risen to the top from nearly a half million surveys that have asked “what characteristics do you look for in a leader, someone whom you would willingly follow?”  They are:  Honest, consistently #1.  Forward looking.  Inspiring.  Competent.  How do YOU do in these areas?  I score high on Honest and Forward-looking, while my growth areas are to be more Inspiring and Competent.

The President’s supporters would say he certainly inspired “his” people with a “forward looking vision.”  He tapped a deep desire people had to “make America great again,” and they resonated with his visions of “walls” and “tough trade agreements” that would bring us to that vision. Those on the left would argue that he is not forward but “backward looking” and that he espouses a vision that is highly uninspiring to many.  But you can’t say he hasn’t offered a vision that inspires people.

Trump clearly falls short of the mark with Honesty and Competence. His number of “4 Pinocchio’s” (a non-partisan measure of truthfulness of political statements) has broken every record in American politics by a moonshot.  He even refuses to accept hard documented truths like a crowd’s size.  Some who appreciate him would argue that “everyone lies in politics” and that “he’s being honest about the big things he said he would do.”  And as far as, Competence, they might argue he’s a highly competent business person who will become more competent as he learns on-the-job – the hardest job in the world.  So far, he’s made disastrous mistakes with the courts, media, and other countries.  One hopes he will learn, although admitting mistakes and seeking to grow do not seen to be hallmarks of his style.  Do you know what limits your honesty and what’s challenging your competence?

We can argue about how Mr. Trump measures up, but it’s valuable to be clear about these four measuring sticks that overwhelming majorities of people across the globe expect of those they will follow.  Measure your authority figures.  Measure yourself.

Leadership Practices.  K&P offer 5 practices.  You can measure how frequently you do them and practice getting better at them.  Today, I’ll touch on the one they elevate as first.  They call it “Modeling the Way.” This means two central things to the authors:  Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD) and talking-and-walking the primary values you hope to root in the culture.  I give Trump high marks on trying to DWYSYWD; low marks for success on them, although it’s early:  No wall. No NAFTA repeal. No “repeal and replace” of Obamacare.  Far from “draining the swamp,” Wall Street and billionaires are in charge; his family continues to exploit his public position for private gain, and his closest advisors appear to have misled the congress, the country and the intelligence community.  If you’re critical of Trump and/or were critical of Hilary for not being honest about the email server, then KNOW:  when YOU are in authority, people WATCH you like a hawk. Say what you want, but you better do what you say.

That leads into the second part of modeling the way: talking-and-walking the values.  What are the core values?  Here we have two things to look at: espoused values and what seem to be the practiced values.  I’m honestly not sure what values our president espouses.  I see his vision (next week’s topic): an economically booming, good-jobs, secure from “bad” people country.  Such communal basics speak to all of us and deeply inspire many.   But what are the values, the “how” that he speaks and espouses?  What’s “the way?”  He certainly doesn’t make a big deal about honesty or transparency, or trust (with staff or other countries), or kindness, or being inclusive; not about innovation, I don’t think; nor excellence; nor respect, e.g., for John McCain or Barack Obama.  These kinds of values propel the best companies and organizations I work with and that I read about. So, what are his espoused values? I’m guessing President Trump’s “how” is “America first.”  Our foreign policy is about getting ours – our security, our economic advantage, etc.  And I guess that he really values competition, or more accurately, values winning.

Then there’s the walk.  He certainly walks winning and America first (although realpolitik seems to be generating at least a little win-win thinking on his part).  The biggest failing, I believe, from a learning-about-leadership standpoint, however, are Trump’s unacknowledged values.  We ALL have both; we are all aspirational saints who can talk a good game, and we are self-centered sinners, no?  We all want to make America Great Again and/or Make America Stronger Together.  But we all – the innumerable “I’s” – also want to win the promotion over our neighbor, have sex and be loved, be in control, be right, be seen as handsome or beautiful, smart or athletic, rich (enough), etc.  When you look at Mr. Trump’s talk,  it’s America First, when you look at his walk, it seems to be “Donald First” (and his family and friends).  He’s a fighter and always a fighter for Donald.  I suspect he’s a narcissist, the kind written about by Stanford Business School’s Robert Sutton in The No Asshole Rule, or written about brilliantly by F. Scott Peck in People of the Lie.  I do not know him.  Nor am I a psychologist.  This is merely what I surmise from life and learning.

I know I will enrage Trump supporters with this.  Because Trump is a competitor, his supporters feel they are on his team, and will read me as a one-sided enemy.  (The other team of competitive liberals may condemn me as a traitor.) Trump the competitor (and Hilary especially with the “deplorables” word) has done a tremendous job of heightening tribalism – not only on the right but on the left as well.  If America was in a win-lose before, it’s all-out now.  So, at the risk of alienating anyone who’s not already feeling attacked…let me close:

We’re all a little bit narcissistic and it hurts our leadership.  I like to be right, respected, powerful, and sometimes it makes me a highly-limited leader – with my kids, wife, students, etc.  I think I’m listening, and I’m not. I think I’m giving credit but I’m taking more than my share.  I’m like a kid and wonder, “when do we get to the part about me?”  I think I’m accepting blame, but in my head or my sarcastic voice, I’m still defending myself.  If we can see and dislike Trump’s narcissism, we should double-down on rooting out our own, as we each model a way that others would want to follow, as we


Lead with our best self!

* I will take a couple different leadership lenses/thinkers over the next few weeks.  I am very open to any suggestions of other relevant thinkers that you think I should write about.  If you would like, you may certainly propose a guest column in this vein of two directions: how ideas and the president leading teaching us about us!


  • I don’t think you unnecessarily attacked either side. What I see is that Donald Trump’s successes and failures are all out there for us to see, and I think he wants you to see them. As a salesperson by nature when he fails I think he thinks the next success is yet to come. And it will be HUGE! Hillary by comparison, her shortcomings were surmised to an extent and a little harder to see. Benghazi & the email server were problems for her that we didn’t know how to add up. And what we don’t understand we reject. I think both were/are guilty of not accepting advice from advisers, and Donald Trump wants his successes to be his and his family’s alone. He doesn’t want anyone else to be able to take credit. He is a poor leader by any measure.

  • I will start by saying that I am not a supporter of our current president. I have challenged myself to find the things that he has done since coming into office that I can at least respect. And although I disagree with the policies and programs he has attempted to put into motion, he has at least tried to do what he said he would do in his campaign. My point is, that I really liked how what you wrote pointed out what he has done well, and what needs work, according to the principles listed. Regardless of whether you agree with DT’s actions, we can all still look to him as an example of a leader. And as the president, all of his actions are open to dissection by the public to learn from. I appreciate that although this is a political topic, we’re looking at it through a leadership lens. This helps me to keep some of the emotion out and actually be a better judge of what has occurred.

    • Blaine,
      Thanks for sharing your perspective.
      Although I’m trying to get us to look at our own leadership, it’s a nice benefit if I am calming down the political conversation a little bit. There’s become so much more friction and heat than there has been light of late.

  • Dan,
    An opinion from the UK. The US is led by a con-man who is so selfcentered he doesn’t want advisors, just yes-men who don’t ask awkward questions. His campaign was a disgraceful pandering to fear and hatred of “Them”. Be it hispanics, the press, the political elite or muslims. He still goes on about winning big when he came 2nd in the total of votes from people. Mrs Clinton was not the person to oppose Mr Trump. It needed a pitbull to sink their teeth into his pomposity and lies and show him for the dangerous ignorant person he is.
    Ah well you have 4 years of the man who went bankrupt twice. God save America from”Bozo the clown mark2″!

  • Dan, You have put a lot in one package above. I will try to read this a few more times.

  • I asked Jim Kouzes, the author of The Leadership Challenge, if he would like to comment on this post about “going to school” on Donald Trump. And he offered the following insights:

    When deciding whether any leader is exemplary—as you will recall, we refer to our model as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®—one must consider who the “constituents” are, or at least who is observing and assessing the leader’s behavior. Remember the old saying that “If you turn around and no one is following you, you’re not leading; you’re just out for a stroll.” The practice of Model the Way is not solely about Doing What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD), but also Doing What We Say We Will Do (DWWSWWD). As we write in The Leadership Challenge, our second of the Ten Commitments of Exemplary Leadership, is “Set the example by aligning actions with shared values.” Emphasis here on “shared values.” That then leads to the question, “Whose shared values are we talking about?” For those who share Donald Trump’s values, they may consider him to be an exemplary leader. For those who don’t share those values, most likely the opposite would be true. One must ask, then, who is (or who should be) Donald Trump’s constituency? Is he the President of the United States, or is he just President of Those Who Agree with Donald Trump? This is fundamental to deciding if Donald Trump, or anyone, is an exemplary leader. Before you can answer the question, “Is this person an exemplary leader?”, first you must answer the question, “Who are the constituents that person is leading?” Then you must ask, “What are the shared values of that constituency?” Here’s something else we know: The more frequently leaders demonstrate The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, the more engaged their constituents are and the higher performing their organizations are.

    THANKS, Jim, for being willing to share your insights!

  • THANK YOU for sharing and being so factual and providing examples and resources. Not that it seems to matter to those on the right. I follow your articles and appreciate all of them. I respect your honesty and openness.

  • Hi Dan – First, lets agree we disagree. Surprised? I think not!
    Never saw a RFL assessment of Obamas leadership. Surprised? I am not.
    Your evaluation and theories come from a Leftists perspective. Surprised? I am not.
    I could easily remove President Trumps name from your letter and insert President Obamas name and then we would find ourselves in the arena of agreement.
    Narcissism was an attribute when on full display by HRH Obama and HRH Hilary.
    I admire your bravery to tackle President Trumps lies, while ignoring the lies about Benghazi being caused by a video, if you like your Doctor you can keep your Doctor, if you like your healthcare plan you can keep your plan, you’ll have 5 days to review Obamacare before I sign it, Fast and Furious gun running debacle where a Boader Patrol agent was killed, Guantanamo Prison will close, troops out of Iraq, failed economy, marriage is between a man and woman, ending wasteful government spending, restoring of habeas corpus, need I go on? I think not!
    Instead of Hope and Change, we got Divisivness and Lies!
    Great political evaluation Dan, but your timing is off by 8 years!
    Still friends? I think so!

    • Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for weighing in. Yes, still friends :-).
      I honestly don’t remember if I assessed Obama’s leadership.
      You are suggesting that I have engaged in the same kind of left-right issue that I’m trying to rise above. I’m sorry you feel that way, and I am disappointed in myself that I fell so short. I am torn between arguing with you and just shutting the ___ up. I am quite clear that much of our problem as a country is that we don’t listen.
      So I will ask two questions about leadership/Trump, and I will listen to your reply:
      1. Do you feel he is draining the swamp? Today we found out that the administration gave waivers on the ethics rules that have been around since Nixon. So, all these people like Conway, Preibus and Bannon — getting full and healthy salaries from us, that’s US — can still pocket income from other sources, including advising Breitbart of all things! If Rachel Maddow worked for the President would you be comfortable for her to continue consulting to MSNBC? It really blows my mind. But I’m asking you, because I am curious about what you think: Does this feel like a draining of the swamp?
      2. Does it bother you that Trump openly says he doesn’t apologize and that he might if he ever does something wrong? Many of the instances you have listed about Obama he has responded to, acknowledging, and even apologizing. Gitmo is a good example. I believe I have apologized to you and Lou, to my kids, my students, to my wife. Bush would apologize. Reagan would apologize. I have a really hard time following someone who won’t take responsibility, and my reading of him — perhaps yours is different — is that he would throw Melania under the bus if it would protect him. I can see you have no respect for Obama, but I’m asking about leadership and about what “way” people model. I get that you didn’t feel proud of Obama. Do you feel proud of Trump, our current president? If so, why?
      Thanks for sharing. I really appreciate. I will keep trying to listen.

  • On “modeling the way” and “values” — I suspect Trump would agree with you that his value is winning, and that he is simply looking at every policy through the lense of “America First” and jobs. I admire the emphasis, frankly. It’s frustrating that every action is viewed through a tribal lens. My tribe (the Ds) risk putting themselves in a position of opposing Trump at every turn and therein being cast as anti-America-First and anti-jobs. This would be a terrible turn of events.
    Working on HRC’s transition team, we were doing a review of every policy with an eye to creating jobs in America. I would hope that she would have trumpeted that pro-jobs message with as much vigor as Trump, but I worry that, as in the campaign, the message would be muffled. Thus, to praise Trump’s “how” — He is consistent in the way he messages and, whether you agree or not with the “what” you have to admire the consistency of his “how”.
    That said, I disagree that some of the actions he has taken will help job growth. Especially pulling out of the Paris agreement, which would have given American businesses making in-demand products that reduce carbon emissions a chance to export their made-in-USA-stamped products to the rest of the globe. I believe this move was America-last and anti-jobs. It makes America smaller. For a guy that might want to be seen as the leader of the free world, this move diminishes America’s standing in the world.
    My two cents. Thanks for a great column, Dan!
    Your biggest fan,

  • Dan, I am delighted that you raised Trump U and embraced the difficult challenge of using current politics to illuminate timeless leadership teachings and principles. Some “yeah-but-she” (or he) deflection is inevitable, but your post’s comments managed to avoid that trap too much.

    I did not enroll in Trump U voluntarily. I was shocked to discover it is required for my enrolment in Earth U. I do not care for the core curriculum.

    The Trump U Leadership Department offers students The Authoritarian Advantage and includes courses such as Divide and Conquer 101, Think Win-Lose, and The Art of Undermining. The Communications Curriculum has a philosophy of “why go deep when you can go cheap?” It offers classes such as When They Go High We Go Low, Name-Calling for Dummies and Seek First to Obfuscate and Then to Obliterate. They offer a MAAF – a Master’s of Arts in Alternative Facts. Required reading includes How to Win Fans and Manipulate People. The Political Science Department boasts such topics as Unreal Realpolitik, Walk Hard and Wield a Scary Stick, and Might Makes Right. I won’t go in to the Philosophy and Divinity departments.

    As you know, Dan, I wrote a political communication book that focuses on the conversations we have with each other. To echo Al Franken, in retrospect, that manuscript now looks rather adorable. It assumes some level of good faith. I no longer assume good faith. In any case, I welcome your willingness to shift the focus to what we each are learning in Trump U. We are ALL enrolled, although our individual experiences are quite different.

    I was despondent to witness how Trump effectively wielded what I term “Poison Phrases.” He applied (and applies) every trick I advise against – and it worked. To keep my own sanity, I use his ascendance and the propagation of his ilk as a spiritual, communication and personal development practice. I consider Trump my Ironic Guru. I explore why I and we have such strong visceral reactions to him. I ask what my personal versions of his contrivances are. That guides me to explore my own shadow side, including my dark nature such as narcissism, and my aspirational side, which says “the world I want to live in and contribute to looks more like this…” Trump serves as a diabolical wake-up call.

    I search out leaders that serve as role-models in this new reality. I am delighted that the “Indivisible” guide learns from Tea Party shenanigans but offers a more elevated version of each action. Al Gore’s “24 Hours of Climate Reality” inspired me with its vision beyond the dominant narrative. I attended four days of Climate Reality Training in which I believe I never heard Trump’s name once. The training was realistic about the challenges and also the opportunities without invoking his name. I also admire those who manage to navigate the swamp speaking truth and staying in integrity. Governor Granholm comes to mind in this category. I marvel over how she maintains dignity in those five cable news panel discussions, where there is always someone who will pee on her leg and tell her it’s raining.

    Obviously Trump tapped in to something real and alive. I don’t assume every reason for embracing his agenda is nefarious. Like the Indivisible authors, none of us can afford to denounce all things right-wing. Like the Indivisible authors, I do well to listen and learn and adapt. What does Trump and his ilk do that is effective? What is my (our) version of that? What underlying need is ignored that they express? What do we have in common? For example, there were times when I welcomed Trump’s willingness to blast sacred cows such as the myth that George Bush kept us safe when 911 happened on his watch.

    Yes, I and we are learning. As a result of Trump’s leadership, I now know where my city hall is. I know my representative’s names. I clarify my values. I am not alone. It is exhilarating to see how many cities, states and citizens are stepping up and standing up for who they and we are at our core. He is indeed an ironic guru.

    I am learning to speak truth in this climate without peeing into the wind. Perhaps I will write again some time. I am not there yet. I am very busy getting conscious of my Trump U teachings. To quote Jung, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” I seek a higher destiny. Thanks to you for inviting us all to seek our personal clarity.

    • Meryl,
      Wow, what a comment! I appreciate your perspectives. In particular:
      1. I too lament this resurgent and so-prominent example of the use of “poison phrases.”
      2. I agree that he is an “ironic guru,” as you call himn, who tests us all to get ourselves straight – face our own narcissism, face our urges to fight hate with hate, step back and question our own judgments — all things he seems NOT to do.
      YOUR work is more important than ever, and your willingness to ask yourself hard questions only strengthens the legitimacy of your work. When you’re ready to start writing again, I know it will be great. In the meantime, please keep gracing my blog with your reflections.

  • Dear Dan,

    Your idea remind me a development class I took last semester. (History of Development and Underdevelopment). We had one whole chapter learning Trump idea of development. As the opposite of traditional nationalism, we called it “New nationalism”, aka, “Trumpism”. In this comment, I am going to talk about my personal opinion about nationalism/globalization and new nationalism/ Self-sufficiency, existence value and influences.

    Nationalism, it’s the rise of ethnic nationalism is driven by the economic slowing of a country as they begin to grow more pessimistic towards other countries and are seeing a rise in radical political leaders who call on inward looking and nostalgic ideas.

    “Trumpism”, it’s an America that emulates (even if hypocritically so) the lost culture of the 1950s; exploits fossil fuels; is run by deal makers who make money ostensibly to achieve a GDP that can fund the niceties of American civilization; opposes unfettered free trade and is united by race and class through shared material success; assesses winning as what’s workable rather than what’s politically correct or doctrinaire; All that seems to be Trumpism (at least for now).

    But why Trump specifically? First, the Obama Economy decline in manufacturing jobs; Secondly, mostly located in Midwest and South; particularly dramatic after 2000; correlated with trade deficit with China; plus, Inequality: CEO to worker compensation ratio (Clinton administration). In conclusion of those two point: “Obama did not establish a new hegemonic formula, or a new material basis of consent”On the other hand, growing divide between distribution of population and electoral college (pre-modern institution “designed to meet interests of a slave-holding oligarchy”) → institutional distortion. “Today, it is more important that we live in a system with electoral college than it was in 1930”. The U.S. is a pre-modern state. As time goes on, this becomes more (not less) relevant. Last but not least, non-Voting and Voting. The question is, who didn’t vote? Data shows that 40% of those eligible did not vote. So who did vote? Racist patriarchy was very evident in this election.

    In development point of view, globalization Vs. Trumpism. Trump’s many idea is pulling U.S. out of globalization. As we all know, globalization is lead by the U.S., because of the dollar and its international political status. (B.Wood system, dollar wall-St, cold war, WTO, World bank) If America withdraw from globalization, no doubt it will be a huge harmful movement to the world econ system. And many of Trump’s movement showing us that his is making U.S. disconnecting from globalization. For example, the dropping out from TPP (affecting the status of the United States in Asia), tighten immigration policy(talent loss), Mexico wall (Diplomatic impression)and quit from “The Paris Agreement”. (Happened two days ago).

    Economical, if company can get a shoe from China with 10 dollars, it’s not passable to push them get it from inside U.S. with 50 dollars. Yes, it will be success with government intervention in short run, but in long run, it will surely broken at some point. Just like the ISI (Intercollegiate Studies Institute).

    In sum, America great because it’s globalize, cultural inclusiveness and international political status. And Trump is slowly pull away all those from this country.

    There are many more I would like to talk about but I am afraid that will be more and more deviate from the theme. We can talk more after class or in office hour.


    • Hugo,
      Wow! I just finished reading your comment from a couple weeks ago. Thanks for spending so much time thinking about this.
      This penultimate paragraph seems to summarize your 50-car train of thought 🙂 :

      “In sum, America great because it’s globalize, cultural inclusiveness and international political status. And Trump is slowly pull away all those from this country.”

      It would be great if more Americans saw this global perspective. Our economic and cultural and political freedoms and inclusiveness seem to be what makes us great — in a global and historical viewpoint. Will WE fail at what we have in many ways, to this point, succeeded at? I surely hope not!


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