Leadership, Power and Failure

The Trump debacle should be entitled, how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, in fairness, the roots of the failure are deep and old and probably intertwined with his many business bankruptcies.


  • An executive is not automatically a leader.
  • A rich man is not automatically powerful.
  • No society is sustained by force.

Social scientists and business school faculty have debated definitions of leadership and power for decades. One I like was published in Forbes in 2013:

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

Kevin Kruse

It’s a simple statement, but involves several requirements:

  1. For a leader to lead, there have to be people who willingly accept his influence with no arm-twisting. How many in the GOP followed Trump docilely simply out of fear of losing their next election? Fear and willing acceptance live on different planets.
  2. The leader isn’t micromanaging everything. He is enabling others to achieve a higher level of performance and achieve a goal as a group. A leader shares credit for accomplishments. It’s not all about him. Trump’s ego wouldn’t let him be a true leader.
  3. Most importantly, there has to be a clearly defined goal. “Make America Great Again” is no more than words. How does one do that? Did Trump ever have a clue? Or a goal for that matter?

Being elected to an office doesn’t make one a leader. Nor does being CEO of a company make one a leader. The job represents an opportunity to lead. What one does matters. Many people have failed in those roles. I’m sure you know some examples.

There are many people with money who play supporting roles. They aren’t leaders and they have no real power. What they have is the ability to finance those who do, but they create nothing on their own. There are roughly 5 million “rich” families in America. How many of them are leaders? How many are powerful? Most are invisible, simply enjoying their wealth, perhaps enabling others, and passing on.

Coercion has limits. Guns represent neither leadership nor power. There are people who know how to use sophisticated weapons who aren’t leaders and have no real power. Nor are there enough enforcers in any society to watch everyone else all the time, even with current technology. We use shortcuts such as keyword scanning or isolate on a few people of interest. We can’t do better than that, and currently, neither can AI.

Nazi Germany had a resistance movement, despite the Gestapo. The Soviet Union had an underground despite the KGB (in which Putin was a colonel). By those standards, the militias in the US are rank amateurs. So are many police departments. Some innovative police departments have learned to work with the communities they serve and have found ways to reduce crime rates through cooperation. Most haven’t. You simply can’t coerce enthusiasm and dedication. Nor can you coerce law-abiding behavior.

Societies, companies and social groups work when individual members are truly committed to the cause, whatever it is. You can encourage that commitment to happen, and real leaders know how to do that. But you can’t force it. The threat of loss of job or even death won’t do it. Threats may drive resistance underground, but it will still be there.

Apart from violating the Constitution, what was the purpose of sending Federal officers to fight protestors in Portland? What did it accomplish? Absolutely nothing. Nor should anything constructive have been expected. Protests stop when protestors feel they have been heard, not before.

Ultimately, Trump failed due to a lack of understanding of how power and leadership work. In his ignorance, he made a series of mistakes — some deadly — that brought his time in the spotlight to an end. The US society paid a high price for his mistakes in the number of dead from violence and Covid.

Hopefully, we and others have learned from this.


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