What Charity Leaders Can Learn From President Trump (Pah!)

Orange face, ridiculously long red tie and already you know who I am talking about, but just how recognisable are you? Yes, he may be a despicable individual, but he isn’t President completely by accident and there may be things you can learn from him.

Leaders, as opposed to task orientated managers, have a clear vision and far goal towards which they lead their followers or staff. Trump has been making America great again, but more than that he has set out clearly the milestones to that goal: draining the swamp, building a wall, cancelling the Affordable Care Act, lowering taxes, ending treaties like climate change and fighting trade wars (under the sub-heading of America First). Steadily, to all intents and purposes he appears to be working his way through that list. And so, he retains credibility with his supporters.

Are your goals and milestones to those goals that clear? Are you battling the odds to achieve them or merely dodging difficult issues e.g. staff who don’t perform, fundraising events that lose money but won’t die, trustees who won’t give you the resources you need?

Effective leaders over-communicate, so their goals and where they are on the path to achieving those goals is clear. Trump in the Oval Office is regularly seen on the news signing Executive Orders to meet his goals. He is on twitter every night to dominate the next day’s news cycle.

It is all too easy to send a memo and then expect your staff to remember what you said six months ago. Even easier to leave communications internal and external to your comms department, because that is what they are there for – right? But as a leader shouldn’t you be seen to lead and seen to be involved in the process you manage? And more importantly, beyond anything Trump does, know what your staff are feeling? That requires consultation and feedback, which won’t happen unless you instigate it and then welcome it.

Great leaders hand-pick their key staffers who have the capability and dedication to reaching the far goals they have set. Such leaders are not afraid to discipline and sack people who don’t perform. Trump hand-picks his top aides and is certainly not afraid to sack them (so long as that is not done face-to-face).

So, where does he fail in leadership? Where he fails is as a truly transformational leader. Those memorable leaders achieve their goals, and much more, by building a team that works together, learns and contributes to the evolution of the strategy. The team members too grow over time into transformational leaders themselves. By contrast, Trump cannot build a team at all, just a collection of people he expects to admire him and take the blame when things go wrong. He is vindictive, which is one of many reasons he cannot attract the best people. And they are rarely in their positions long enough to learn and contribute.

He can’t keep to his own long-term agenda as he doesn’t have the skills, political understanding or work ethic to actually get things through the house and senate. Instead he relies on lying, claiming victories he hasn’t won and appearing to be achieving. This entirely goes against the ethos of a transformational leader who embodies the positive qualities he wants his staff to exhibit. Unfortunately, he also lacks empathy and exhibits the characteristics of a narcissistic bully. Moreover, he fails to uphold, simple decency and the personal ethics we expect in charities which consider themselves highly ethical places. In the UK we have seen the result when charities are seen to be less than ethical.

In the time of the Ancient Greeks the philosopher Plutarch taught that people are social animals and will follow and emulate a leader taking on the leader’s characteristics. So, if that leader wants to have followers who will work hard to achieve the set goals, the leader must exhibit the characteristics he wants his follower to emulate. If he goes home early, doesn’t tackle difficult issues and cheats on his expenses so will they.

Let me be clear this is not in praise of Trump, but in part a look at why he is where he is, and in part a look at what we can learn from his success however, qualified that may be.

The world needs many more transformational leaders to mitigate the harm that Trump is doing; and charities, non-profits and social enterprises are not bad places to start.

John Baguley, Founder and Chair. International Fundraising Consultancy