Avoiding Trumpitis: the pandemic of ego-centric leadership sweeping the world

2 years ago   •   4 min read

By Campbell Macpherson

A pandemic was sweeping the globe well before a bat-infected pangolin passed on Covid-19 to its first human host. ‘A pandemic of authoritarian leadership; the cult of the strong man’ is how international business adviser Campbell Macpherson describes the scenario at the moment.

In the ‘Leading Change’ and ‘Embracing Change’ workshops and webinars I run for organisations worldwide, I used to ask the delegates “What does poor leadership look like?” and from every corner of the room would come the same response: “Donald Trump!” The first time this happened, in a packed conference hall in Singapore, was funny. By the 20th time, I decided to change the question.

But this disease didn’t start with the USA’s 45th President. Narcissistic leaders could be found in many nations well before 2016. The Donald was simply the latest, loudest and most incredible variation of this insidious virus; a virus that we must make sure does not take hold in the world of business.

Trumpitis is easy to spot. It is a leadership style that is entirely about the leader. The leader that is suffering from this condition (or perhaps revelling in it) will pretend that they are acting in the best interests of their people. They may even convince themselves that this is true, but it isn’t. Every thought is about them. Every motive is self-centred. Every sentence they utter is about them, even when they are supposedly talking about their people or the organisation or disasters or viruses or climate change – or anything.

avoiding trumpitis

They are in power primarily to serve their own interests. They are in power to serve their own career, to boost their own back pocket, to fuel their own ego.

The world of politics has become infected with such leaders, and the phenomenon is no longer confined to nations with one-party dictatorships as it was in the past. Established and fledgeling democracies alike are succumbing to empty populous rhetoric and electing Presidents and Prime Ministers who have little regard for anyone but themselves. Leaders who feign empathy and will happily bend the truth to suit their own personal narrative. Leaders who will promise anything to get elected but have no idea how to govern. Leaders whose sole objectives are a) to get elected, and b) to stay in power. They have no c).

The glass-half-empty view would of the world at the moment would be that billions of people are currently living under some form of the party-appointed dictator or elected Trumpitis carrier. However, the number of populist democracies are not in the majority. For every USA, UK, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil and Belarus, there are dozens and dozens of other nations whose elected leaders are genuinely in the job to make life better for their people and the world. It is easy to forget this sometimes. 

The standouts to me are New Zealand and Germany. The citizens of these countries have elected leaders who care about their people and their nations. Perhaps it is partly due to where they have come from. Jacinda Arden was raised in a small dairy town in country New Zealand. Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany. Grounded, honest, hard-working and intelligent women with a sense of duty to their nations and the world. America and Britain, on the other hand, elected entitled, self-serving and over-indulged men who value personal loyalty above competence; whose sense of duty rarely extends beyond themselves.

Business leaders need to be a lot more like Jacinda and Angela, and a whole lot less like Donald and Boris – if they want their businesses to be successful and sustainable.

True leadership, inspiring leadership, genuine leadership is empathetic – the polar opposite of Trumpitis.

True leaders:

  • Like people.
  • Like themselves. True leaders see their real selves and like what they see. 
  • Build extraordinary leadership teams. They understand that 21st Century leadership is a team game, not a solo pursuit. They surround themselves with capable people who have skills they do not possess. They build leadership teams with members whose strengths offset one another’s weaknesses, and work together to deliver shared objectives.
  • Create more leaders, not more followers. True leaders develop their people and nurture their leadership potential. 
  • Enable their people to shine. They set their people up to succeed and they take pride in their success.
  • Embrace stewardship. They strive to leave the business in a better state than they found it. 
  • Combine humility with confidence. As Jacinda Arden said, “Humility is strength”. True leaders know the difference between arrogance and confidence. They engage with their people, genuinely, and encourage them to challenge decisions., because they want the best for the organisation.
  • Change their minds when a better solution arises or facts change. True leaders are able to do this because their decisions are based on informed insight rather than ego.
  • Share the credit when things go well and take the blame when things don’t.
  • Are authentic. They are not afraid to be themselves.
  • Deliver results – via a clear strategy, an inclusive culture and aligned people.

But perhaps most of all, true leaders realise that leadership is all about leading change. If they are not leading change, they are not leading anything; they are just managing the status quo. And thanks to Covid-19, the status quo no longer exists. 

The key role of a leader today is to help their people to want to change. They know that success is nigh impossible unless their people are ready, willing and able to embrace it. In fact, the ability to embrace change is the greatest gift that any leader can give their people – it is the key skill we all need to be successful and content at work and in life.

True leaders give their people the power to change. 


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