IMD International

Donald Trump and the contemporary leadership deficit

Jean-Pierre Lehmann on the American presidential race

Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon have written an excellent, challenging report, entitled: Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in the Digital Age. One of the key lessons is that in this extremely confusing and unprecedented transformative era in which we are living, most leaders the authors interviewed – in both government and industry – admit to being quite clueless on what is going on and even more so on where to go and how. Even though most, with some exceptions, refused to be cited, it is quite revealing – even if perhaps not surprising – how much of a deficit in leadership the world is experiencing.

This is at a time when leadership is one of the most used (abused?) terms in the corporate and business school worlds. All these symposiums, courses, coaching, courses, not to mention the voluminous literature and case-studies, seem to be having no effect. Or rather, the focus is quite narrow, aimed at an already ordained elite, while remaining quite oblivious to the broader environment – both domestic and global.

The image that comes to mind is Titanic: the globe is a huge liner that is sinking in very rough seas, the crew and first class passengers are monopolizing the lifeboats while the rest of the passengers, who constitute the vast majority, are left to drown yelling and screaming. Some of these lifeboats will head for Panama or other tax havens, while the crème-de-la-crème draw fabulously exorbitant incomes.

And that in a nutshell is why “The Donald” is where he is and why – remember: “think the unthinkable” – he may become the next president of the world’s “leading?” superpower.

Of course, conventional wisdom has it that he will be beaten by Hillary. But conventional wisdom also excluded his becoming the candidate of the Republican Party. Conventional wisdom is clearly wrong – i.e. not that wise. That, in turn, is because the conventional wisdom makers are too comfortably ensconced in the comfort zones of familiar paradigms.

What the conventional wisdom makers and their leaders have failed to realize is that those who are drowning are angry, really, really angry and this mainly has arisen out of the appalling deficit of leadership. The anger and the leadership deficit are global.

It is obviously the case in the US. Tomes have come out from a few leading American economists, notably Joe Stiglitz, how the top 1%, extending perhaps to the top 10%, are doing well – indeed, very well – while the “bottom” 90%, to various degrees, are not doing well at all and fear for their future and the future of their children. The anger, the waling, the gnashing of teeth creates a frightful sight and a frightful din, except for those who have their blinders and earplugs on.

Trump is an illustration of anger with striking American characteristics. But where on earth today are the anger and the anxieties not poignant?

A quick tour of the world: Europe is in desperate shape with significant social unrest – e.g. Paris at the moment – and political populism, some of it, as in Austria quite ugly. In Japan as the “reforms” undertaken in line with Abenomics have witnessed a huge increase in part-time employees, who suffer not only from low wages, but also from insecurity, there is anger and anxiety among many. In Hong Kong, which has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest levels of inequality in Asia, there is deep concern both about the politics and about the economics.

The scene in Latin America? Look at Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil, where, as in many parts of the world, there is not only anger, indeed fury, over the political leadership, but especially the extent of corruption and mismanagement. Turn to Africa. When seeing Zuma, poor Nelson Mandela turns restlessly in his grave. The picture hardly improves elsewhere in the continent.

Similar narratives arise from most of the Asian continent. India has 12 million jobs to create per annum for the next decade, but the youth entering the labor market are mainly unskilled and uneducated. Young Chinese are angry because of the graft, the pollution, the inequalities and the vanishing professional opportunities.

Where the anger is really boiling is of course in the Middle East North Africa. This arises from decades of some of the worst governance the world has witnessed and from demographic forces. The combination is lethal. Sixty percent of the population of the region is less than 25. What future does a young Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, etc, etc, have? In some countries, youth unemployment is reckoned as high as 70%.

The cause of the disasters that pervade the region arises primarily from the local leadership. Mubarak, to quote one example, devastated Egyptian society during his thirty year rule, come (briefly) the “Arab Spring”, and a coup d’état restores “normalcy” in the person of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with whom the West quickly join in cahoots.

Saudi Arabia has definitely one of the world’s most odious regimes – and the competition is stiff! As it proselytized its fanatical obscurantist hate-mongering Wahhabism around the Islamic world – the doctrine that defines and drives the Islamic State – for decades Western eyes were closed with the country treated as a “reliable ally”, especially in respect to its highly appreciated purchase of expensive weaponry and as manager of global oil.

Today it seems likely that for a variety of turbulent (but predictable) reasons the House of Saud will collapse – remember: think the unthinkable. What will happen then? No one knows. But it is possible that the mayhem that follows will make what has been taking place so far in the MENA region seem a picnic!

The proverbial bottom line is that while our corporate and government leadership has sought to create a global market, it has failed to lay foundations for creating a global community, or indeed a community domestically, as polarization becomes more exacerbated. Hence the Trumps of this world.

That is what leadership in the 21st century should be about. It should be about good citizenship, ethics, inclusivity, equity, justice, hope, opportunity and, especially, solidarity. Leadership should stop being navel-gazing elitism.

I am sometimes subjected to criticism of being a pessimist. But one critical lesson from the Trump syndrome (and from Gowing and Langdon’s report) is that optimism or pessimism in the current context is irrelevant. We don’t have time for indulgence. Realism leads to a sense of alarmism and if alarmism can shake us (the elites, the corporate hierarchies, the business schools) from our myopic complacency, there may, in due turbulent course, be some grounds for hope. Leadership has to be about society. The alternative is the global proliferation of Trumps!

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at IMD. Professor Lehmann teaches on the
Orchestrating Winning Performance program.

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