Say what you will about Donald Trump, but when you’re writing about leadership-related matters, he is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.
His generosity continued during last Thursday’s Republican debate, when Fox News’ Bret Baier challenged Trump about his statement that he would go so far as to target the families of terrorists.
BAIER: (T)he military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?
TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.
A few moments later, Baier pressed the point.
BAIER: But targeting terrorists’ families?
TRUMP: And -- and -- and -- I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
My intent here is not to drag us into a political debate, especially a debate about debates. But I do want to focus on those last two sentences of Trump’s reply:
“If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.”
The level of ignorance is breathtaking. The defining characteristic of leadership is the existence of followers, not the ability to wield power over subordinates. So it’s not just that what Trump said is wrong. It’s that it’s exactly wrong.
As odd a segue as this may seem, it actually shines a bright, sharp light on the core reason that Employee Engagement (EE) efforts come up short of expectations as often as they do. It’s because too many organizational leaders think their job is to get people—or, worse, to require people—to do what they say: “You will become more engaged.” Granted, any leader possessing minimal qualifications for the job would never exhibit their Trumpian tendencies by saying it quite that directly. But it is the subtext of a lot of what gets said.
At one point in my career, I did some executive coaching for a Fortune 200 company. One of the executives with whom I worked was a recently retired US Navy Admiral named Bill who was making the transition from a military to a business environment.
Bill is a very smart and capable guy. He is also—no small point—a very good guy, exhibiting none of the tendencies manifested in the kind of uninformed bloviation belched out by Donald Trump in the quotes above. (An aside that is also an homage to Dave Barry: “Uninformed Bloviation” would be a great name for a rock band.)
Bill was concerned that he wasn’t more effective at getting the kind of results out of his team that he desired, which led us to this exchange.
Bill: I tell people to do things, and I’m very clear about what it is that I want them to do. But it just doesn’t happen. And even if it happens, it doesn’t happen as fast as it ought to.
Me: And you’re frustrated?
Bill: Yes, it’s very frustrating.
Me: I understand. But you’ve got to remember that you’re in a different world now. When the people under you don’t do what you want them to do, you can’t have them thrown into Federal prison any more.
For two or three seconds—a very long two or three seconds—Bill showed no reaction. Then he gave a big laugh and said: “Excellent point by you!”
When it comes to EE, the leader’s job is not to assert: “You will be engaged!” It’s not to put into place the strategies and tactics that will cause people to make the calculation that it’s in their best interests to go along “or else," which is just a softer, more indirect way of saying the same thing. The leader’s job is to create an environment within which people will more naturally become engaged. Note the verb: “become,” not “acquiesce” or “comply” or “throw their arms up in surrender.” And note whose action that verb describes: the people’s, not the putative leader’s.
Another recent quote from Trump provides further amplification. It’s from the speech he made following the Super Tuesday primaries. He was referring to the Speaker of the House (i.e., the Constitutionally mandated officer at the head of one half of a co-equal branch of government) when he said:
"I'm going to get along great with Congress. Paul Ryan, I don't know him well, but I'm sure I'm going to get along great with him. And if I don't, he's going to have to pay a big price."
Trump calls it leadership. I call it the compensatory mewings of a very insecure man. (Another aside: "Compensatory Mewings" would also be a great name for a rock band.)
Too many organizational leaders exhibit similar tendencies when it comes to facing up to the real challenges inherent in achieving higher levels of Employee Engagement, although not to the bloviatingly ignorant levels described above.
I’ll close by putting things in terms that even Donald Trump might understand: It’s not about who has big hands. It’s about who is secure and self-assured enough to be unafraid to manifest a big heart.