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US election: lessons in leadership (Opinion piece)

Three key things we learned about leadership from the US election results.

By Dr Philip Stiles, University Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance at Cambridge Judge Business School

A flag reading
Philip Stiles.
Dr Philip Stiles

Beyond the headline results, US presidential elections always tell the world a lot about leadership – including style, personality, judgement, emotional fitness and communication – that often has application far beyond politics. I highlight three aspects relating to leadership that really stand out from the 2020 US elections:

Big personality, particularly big narcissism, is double-edged when it comes to elections

Perhaps more than any other country, personality really matters for US presidential voters because they are by definition electing a single “person” rather than (as in parliamentary systems) members of parliament who will form a government.

We are all psychologists when it comes to judging presidential candidates. Many experts may say they adhere to the “Goldwater Rule” (named after defeated 1964 Republican candidate Barry Goldwater) which states that trying to judge a president’s psychological makeup at second-hand distance is unethical – but this has not stopped many from doing so.

Trump’s personality in particular has been exhaustively examined, the general consensus being that he is a socially dominant, authoritarian person, with high extroversion combined with very low agreeableness. This is not surprising: in a 2000 study that compared the personality traits of US presidents to population norms, presidents tended to be more extroverted and less agreeable or open to experience.

But the term which gets used most about Trump is narcissistic, which suggest an individual who is unwilling to take criticism and who needs constant affirmation of their greatness. Though narcissism is also a familiar feature of political (and organisational) leadership, the extent of Trump’s narcissism appears to many to be off the scale, particularly his narcissistic rage. He demeans opponents, including scientists (particularly on climate change), the World Health Organization (on COVID-19), CNN, The National Football League, the FBI, and many others who share different opinions to his. Joseph Biden’s personality, in contrast, is usually described as outgoing and agreeable, with a strong conciliatory pattern – a consensus builder.

Psychological research suggests a double-edged sword when it comes to narcissism: while narcissists can become highly popular and be afforded high esteem, they can find this difficult to sustain as people become tired of their self-absorption. Even though Trump attracted 72 million votes, he is one of few one-term presidents in recent history – suggesting that this double-edge moment arrived for enough voters to tip the election in Biden’s favour.

Celebrity creates fandom, but this can create more out-group hatred than in-group affection

What is clear is that Trump’s personality has made him a celebrity – and he was a celebrity long before he became a politician. People find celebrities fascinating; they are drawn to them in large numbers. When Trump says “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”, this suggests he knows the strength of his worth as a celebrity. As was observed in a Financial Times column, Trump supporters are more like football fans than mere voters in that “they cannot see their own team’s fouls, and so presume that referees are biased against them”.

The combination of celebrity and fandom is potent, and has created three important groupings in the US political landscape: Democrats, Republicans, and Trump supporters. A recent study showed that support for Trump is characterised more by out-group hatred than by in-group affection – that is, Trump’s approval is best explained by a disdain for the Democratic and liberal groups he so often attacks.

In leadership research, the phenomenon of the in-group and the out-group has long been attested and so too the negative effects this separation can have. Many US voters, including Republicans, clearly got tired of all the political conflict and were attracted to a candidate who preached healing rather than division.

To be lastingly effective, “authenticity” needs morals

One of the dominant views of leadership is authenticity. In the US elections, the term was used a huge amount, primarily to try to explain Donald Trump’s appeal. Trump’s belief that he is true to himself and he says what he thinks is often viewed as a key factor in his success, with a communication style that breaks traditional rules of engagement. His authenticity is bolstered by his dismissal of other views or criticisms as “fake” – which he used to denigrate the reporting of respected media operations.

Trump is not the first president to distort the truth or to denigrate the media, but the scale of his dismissal of scientific knowledge or verified statements of fact is surpassing. Trump’s “speak-my-mind” persona is attractive to many, but to be classified as “authentic” requires more than just this – or otherwise any person with a strong opinion and a willingness to share it could be so labelled.

The extra dimension of truly effective authenticity is moral. Authenticity has to have moral foundations and a connection to truth. According to The Washington Post, Donald Trump as President has made 22,247 false or misleading claims up to 27 August, when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination for a second term. The Economist just prior to the elections called Trump “morally bankrupt”. Whether this overstates the case or not, what is remarkable is that Trump has not taken his disdain for fake news to build a greater emphasis on truth.