4 leadership learnings courtesy of Trump

UAlberta business experts point out valuable lessons aspiring leaders can take from Donald Trump’s presidential victory.


A business leader whose candidacy was often perceived as a joke persisted, ran an unconventional campaign that left few people indifferent and is about to become, to the astonishment of many, the 45th president of the United States tomorrow. What can we learn from his unexpected victory?

“Business leaders should remind themselves that getting the job is a lot different from actually leading,” said University of Alberta strategic management expert Marvin Washington.

Washington and Alberta School of Business dean Joseph Doucet offer four important insights and lessons—things to do and things not to do—future leaders can take from Trump’s example so far.

1. Simplicity matters

“There’s a line that’s been going through my head since Trump won: ‘Sometimes the simple message really is the best message even if it’s wrong,’” said Washington.

“If there’s one thing Trump does extremely well, it’s getting the attention of people in six seconds by saying something they will hang onto. What he said may have been cruel, mean or false. But it worked.”

The lesson: Our job as leaders is to take complex and complicated information and make the message simple, said Washington.

“Everyone knows things are much more complicated than building a wall, for example, but that doesn’t matter because simplicity is what we want to hear.”

2. Integrity matters more

When it comes to integrity, Doucet points to the incoming president as an example of what not to do.

“When I look at Trump, his lack of understanding of ethical principles and good governance is so blatant that it’s difficult for me to speak about his positive character traits,” said Doucet.

In other words, it’s hard to believe in and follow someone you can’t count on to do the right thing, especially when it’s as clear as adhering to a code of ethics.

“What the business world sees as legitimate conflict of interest is foreign to him,” added Doucet, referring to as-yet-unclear conflicts of interest between Trump’s businesses and decisions he makes in office, particularly as some of his holdings in other countries may involve connections with foreign governments.

The lesson: You can be forgiven many mistakes by employees and customers, but lack of integrity is not one of them, said Doucet.

3. Confidence sells

And yet, sometimes confidence can sway even when integrity is in question. Because Trump is bold in what he says, many believe him for it.

“We all know people like this, when, if confronted, instead of backing into a corner will double down, even if what they’re backing is crazy,” said Washington.

The real question is whether Trump is being authentic to his own values or just gaming the system and finding something to say and sticking with it over and over. And the jury's still out on that.

The lesson: “The message for business leaders is to be really clear and committed to something you do truly care about and stay on message,” added Washington.

4. Bullies are a bust

“My sense from watching the election is that Trump is a bully,” said Doucet. “And that’s antithetical to good, positive leadership based on what we know from evidence-based research and popular discourse.”

The lesson: “Leaders should get their team to embrace a plan through a shared vision without bullying them into submission,” said Doucet.

It takes courage from other leaders to confront those who bully in power, added Doucet. But the payoff is plentiful in terms of respect and allegiance from others because at the end of the day, a great leader believes in others.