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Unreal Leadership is Dangerous to your Health

· Leadership

Our national leadership is in crisis. America has become an example of unreal leadership. No one could have dreamed up a more illusory type of leadership than Mr. Donald Trump’s in a time of crisis.

It’s clear that there is no correspondence whatsoever between power and competency. As Dana Milbank writes in the March 1, 2020 edition of the Washington Post (“For Trump, a reckoning has come”), the time for reckoning has come for all Americans to think about the kind of leadership they want.

As the coronavirus marches inexorably from continent to continent, crossing borders and every type of existing human difference, a global health and economic crisis looms over the world. Yet the president of what used to be the world’s example of good leadership tunes out reality. Mr. Trump is clearly not up to the job of discharging his responsibilities in benefit of those he leads, that is, we Americans. As I wrote in a previous article, the America First (and all the rest be damned) philosophy is a risk to our health.

Toxic leadership is ruining lives

People are dying. Yet Mr. Trump continues his playground politics as cheerleader-of-wishful thinking-in-chief. By downplaying the looming health and economic crisis, hardly acknowledging the first coronavirus-related death in the U.S., and silencing those trying to prepare the public, Mr. Trump is proving to be the prime example of today’s widespread crisis in leadership.

The world’s foremost stewards have been sleepwalking from one crisis to another. Back in 2015, a startling 86% of respondents to the Survey on the Global Agenda agreed that we have a leadership crisis in the world. Our world leaders have largely failed to address any major global issue in recent years 

– global warming and major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, data fraud/theft, large-scale cyberattacks, man-made environmental damage and disaster, water crises, terrorism and violence, large-scale involuntary migration, water crises.

Five years later, social, geopolitical and health risks have increased, and Trump has taken the lead with a toxic kind of leadership that is ruining lives. Political leadership has been increasingly marked by what Arnold Ludwig argued are behaviors similar to those of alpha-male monkeys and apes.

Ludwig argues in King of the Mountain (2002) that leaders of nations have been increasingly plagued by factional alignment, power plays, deep corruption, and personality disturbances. As political leaders have increasingly sought power, privilege and perks above all else, deviant ingrained and enduring behavior patterns in relation to others have been manifested.

Various degrees of subjective distress and impaired social functioning have come to encompass domains of leadership behavior and psychological functioning that deviate significantly from the way an average individual in a given culture perceives, thinks, feels and, particularly, relates to others. Leaders have also increasingly manifested different types of mental aberrations, such as protective cover-ups, manias or “highs”, impaired cognitive functioning, anxiety-related disorder, paranoia, and even psychopathology.

Leaders around the world have been more worried about their political playgrounds than about the well-being of those who chose them to serve and lead. In seeking to ensure that their work “products” bear their personal stamp, leaders like Narendra Modi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump respond aggressively to both internal and external disturbances.

There is a dearth of statesmanship

All this goes to say that there is dearth of statesmanship: the ability of a leader to transcend his/her own national interests, let alone personal ones, and take positions for the worldwide and common good and get other leaders to do the same. Great statesmen use their superior diplomatic skills and possess a great breadth of vision that lets them hear the distant hoof-beats and anticipate the unfolding of national and international events long before they happen.

In an increasingly interconnected world marked by growing ease of travel and technological advances in mass communication, there is a greater need for statesmen who can represent a unifying symbol for his/her people. The greater chance of conflicting interests requires leaders that can embody the virtues of the particular culture, stand for everything that is right and good, and put the welfare of the nation ahead of his/her personal desires.

A statesman serves as a moral exemplar, giving inspiration for the nation in times of crisis. Yet, among today’s roster of leaders, Mr. Trump will be remembered for being the best example of unreal leadership and un-statesman-like behavior. He will have distinguished himself as an eventful man, instead of as an event-making man.

Rather than bringing about momentous happenings that can transform America’s unrealized potential into a more constructive reality, what Trump does is catabolic and showcases how vanity, intimidation, unease and contrariness trump personal presence, poise, courage, and political leadership. Instead of reducing uncertainty, increasing creativity and facilitating collective learning, Trump’s transactional type of leadership has imposed traditional roles and allocations of power instead of motivational influence, promoted resistance to change, discouraged independent thinking, and frustrated the flexibility necessary to stimulate creativity and performance.

The role of a real leader

The role of a real leader is to realize or prevent certain events through catalytic stewardship. His/her decisions and policies increase (promote) or decrease (inhibit) the rate of reaction without being self-consumed. The issues a leader chooses to address and how he/she chooses to address them makes constructive or destructive political outcome possible, for example, above board negotiations instead of back room maneuvering, competency diversity instead of dysfunctional decision performance, comity instead of racial or ethnic conflict or religious tensions, respect and civility instead of disregard and insults.

Certain kinds of leaders, like Mr. Trump, are catabolic catalysts: they operate in their own little world, destroy energy and never stop to think about the consequences of what they are doing. This generally generates violent reactions that increase in the rate of a society’s destructive metabolism. By precipitating events, they are, for all practical purposes, completely ineffective as leaders or are only capable of narrow action that gives rise to limited results that don’t address the more pervasive problem, such as the effects of the present coronavirus on national health and security.

Other kinds of leaders, like Mr. Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria or Mr. Macky Sall of Senegal, are polyfunctional anabolic catalysts: they are self-aware, build positive energy and promote society’s constructive metabolism. They precipitate events through a broad spectrum of activity that responds constructively to multiple social reactants such as ethnic tensions, religious differences, pressing social needs, the economy, foreign influences, and, of course, a national health emergency. Kudos to Nigeria’s readiness and capability to deal with the coronavirus, as it did with the Ebola crisis, and kudos to Senegal’s laboratory capability to test people for this new virus. They’re both examples of effective political leadership in times of crisis.

Catalytically “great” vs. ineffective leadership

What the present coronavirus crisis reveals is how certain leaders become catalytically “great” by rising to the challenge, while others make decisions and take actions that render their leadership completely ineffective. This is not to say that a leader, great or otherwise, causes a particular event. But a leader does facilitate or inhibit a historical event whose antecedents lay dormant. In this sense, the leaders of Nigeria and Senegal, beyond whatever failings or weaknesses they may have, demonstrate how leadership becomes real when a leader apprehends and exercises options that will positively affect social functioning and in the process reconciles the notion of historical necessity with individual initiative.

An unreal leader prefers to play King of the Playground by making decisions and taking actions that exhibit very low levels of empathy and compassion, are bully-like and are driven by vanity and arrogance. A lack of self-awareness and failure to see beyond one’s ego leads to negative catalytic events that create social turbulence and chaos, inadequate responses, disinformation, and confusion among officials struggling to determine who’s in control of responding to an event and how to best respond to it. The general public gets the short end of the stick as people try to understand what exactly is happening and what individuals and families should do. That is the current situation regarding the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.

Meanwhile, businesses bear the brunt of economic risk derived from the coronavirus. Those that had the foresight to invest in strategic, operation and financial resilience to emerging global risks are better positioned to respond and recover. Those that didn’t, amplify existing trends and vulnerabilities. Regardless, weak or ineffective governance will result in long-term consequences for all communities and businesses.


What is the Trump administration planning on doing about disruption in global supply chains; the effect of travel restrictions on the tourism industry; the work disruptions, cuts in output and marked decline in Chinese consumption; the impact on tech industry shipments; and more importantly, the eroding trust within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other nations? How is the Trump administration preparing to help businesses, big and small, deal not only with standard concerns related to business operational continuity, but also with employee protection and market preservation? Once COVID-19 is contained, as it eventually will be, will it be back to complacency as usual?


Real leaders lead with action, not distraction

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s unreal leadership is dangerous to our physical, economic and social well-being. Mr. Trump and his cabinet are struggling to lead with character and are the prime example of the panic and neglect cycle that affects the majority of developed economies.

Is Mr. Trump measuring up? Definitely not. The Trump administration is not doing the right or the best thing. Instead of relying on a demand and control approach marked by unclear messages, Trump should be leading with vision and compelling messages.

A real leader is a good leader because he/she:

  • takes the time to figure out what is going on, instead of politicizing what escapes him by calling it a “hoax”.
  • acts with deliberateness and speed but not hurriedly, by providing direction and responding to the situation in a timely fashion, instead of scrambling to fashion a response.
  • addresses the size and scope of the crisis without alarming people but at the same time without being afraid to speak to the magnitude of the situation, instead of downplaying the severity of the situation and going on the offensive against perceived political opponents to portray the situation as better than it appears.
  • demonstrates control by setting direction and providing perspective while taking in new information, listening carefully and consulting with the frontline experts who know what’s happening, instead of portraying the situation as better than it is.

The American people must demand real leadership, one that can

  • face the unavoidable with confidence and veracity and manage crisis by communicating clearly.
  • understand how to approach problems from a different perspective.
  • is willing to seek advice from other team members and can use their knowledge to devise a creative solution to the problem.
  • exhibit strong self-control even in the midst of crisis.
  • is capable of making rational decisions, communicating clearly, and working to effectively solve the problem.
  • possesses strong relationship management skills.
  • knows how to move people in the right direction while maintaining self-control.
  • is able to encourage different perspectives.

Americans like to see their elected officials in action, not behind a bully pulpit spewing fantasies amid insults while mocking political rivals and playing at politics of distraction, deception and blame. As columnist Dana Milibank concludes in his March 1, 2020 opinion article in the Washington Post (“For Trump a reckoning has come”): The markets see through it. And Americans will hold him responsible if he doesn’t do more, fast, to protect us.

The measure of a real leader

Paraphrasing leadership consultant John Baldoni, the measure of a (real) leader is often tested during a crisis. It is those leaders who can engage directly, but still maintain their sense of perspective, who are the ones that can command respect, as opposed to demanding it, and help a nation survive on the basis of true progress and growth.

Unproven leaders come with a high risk premium. America needs a president who leads from within, one who has a vision not a fantasy, can lead him/herself, has proven experience in governance, is aware of how much he/she doesn’t know, and believes in service above self.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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