Lessons in leadership the public service can learn from Donald Trump

By Victoria Draudins

April 4, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. .Photo by Olivier Douliery/ Abaca.

It takes a certain amount of skill for leaders in the public sector to inspire and mobilise their workforces in the face of change, whether it be rolling out a single initiative, or embarking on a large-scale transformation.  Despite being one of the most divisive people in public life today, Donald Trump harnessed enough of America’s support to get elected to the most powerful office in the world.

So, in the spirit of embracing and tolerating a diversity — wherever it lies — it’s worth considering what leadership lessons we can learn from Donald Trump. Here are the six main themes of his leadership style:

1. Inspires people to come on a journey

What Trump did: presented a clear vision for America, making unsettled peoples feel a part of the journey to something great. Trump knew his message would be key, and put a lot of planning into it (he actually trademarked his ‘make America great again’ slogan back in 2012).

Why is this important in a public sector context: communicating a clear, consistent plan for the future allows your team to figure out what they’re working towards and how they fit in. For example, the DHS Transformation devoted much effort to bring staff on the ‘journey’, providing certainty and excitement in a time of turbulence for staff.

Contemporary: Richard Branson — the charismatic leader captures the imagination of staff through the sheer force of his personality as a daredevil upstart, inspiring them to be a part of a ‘challenger’ culture and have a lot of fun in the process.

2. Established a personal ‘brand’

What Trump did: forged a reputation — albeit one for being consistently unpredictable as a rich business man with an outrageous personality.

Why is this important in a public sector context: painting a strong vision of yourself allows people to feel connected to you and buy in to your plans, even if they only know you peripherally. It also helps employees figure out how best to align their working styles with yours. For example, with almost half of their career spent as a departmental secretary, former finance secretary Jane Halton forged a reputation amongst staff for exacting standards and as a fierce advocate for gender equality, which flowed through into all staff interactions.

Contemporary: Steve Jobs — it’s hard to find someone with a more consistent personal style (given he dressed in the same outfit everyday). Jobs’ understanding of the need to form connections through branding meant that talent was attracted to work for him with the same intensity that consumers were attracted to Apple’s products.

3. Play to their strengths

What Trump did: Trump knows he is a maestro marketer. Time and time again he’s used his showmanship – first in building his business empire, and latterly to mobilise public support and fend off political adversity. And while another of his talents, his self-lauded negotiation skills, are currently being tested by the Senate, it’s worth keeping in mind it’s still very early days. As Joe Hockey said of Trump’s administration, “If this was a five day international test cricket match, we would still be in the first session on the first day”.

Why is this important in a public sector context: leaders know their core competencies and focus on developing them through their careers. Keeping sight of your strengths has never been more important as public servants are challenged to provide quality, frank and fearless advice in an environment where governments can seek advice from many avenues. For example, the Department of Innovation, Industry and Science is focusing on leading the way in public service innovation, through establishing BizLab.

Contemporary: Warren Buffet — he is a strong proponent of the ‘circle of competence.’ He knows which investments fall within his ‘sweet spot’ of expertise, saying ‘I stay within that circle, and I don’t worry about things that are outside’.

4. Focuses on early quick wins on assuming a new position

What Trump did: before even assuming office, he had defence contractor Lockheed commit to a $5 billion savings target, and called out numerous companies to keep jobs in the USA. Notwithstanding the wider detriment to global trade, Trump knew this would resonate with the public; directly linking back to constituents’ key concerns around expenditure and job security. And although Trump now faces new challenges of maintaining momentum over more complex reform, he bought pubic goodwill by providing some early craved-for action.

Why is this important in a public sector context: action sets the tone for how you want things run, and allows you to prove yourself and establish trust and confidence with people early on. For example is, after struggling in its former incarnation, the Digital Transformation Agency is setting a new tenor by produced a number of initiatives shortly after its establishment, like the Digital Service Standard and Digital Investment Management Office.

Contemporary: Prime Minister Theresa May — with a near singular focus since getting elected, is racing along to implement Brexit as soon as possible.

5. Seek out and take advice on board

What Trump did: he does listen to advice, with reports that his daughter Ivanka’s feedback was responsible for Trump’s more moderate speech to a joint session of congress. Also, Trump actively seeks out different perspectives. The 16 business leaders appointed to Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum come from a diverse range of ideologies, and aren’t afraid to come out against issues when they disagree, like Trump’s travel ban.

Why is this important in a public sector context: problems are easier to detect and solve when you seek out and are open to constructive criticism from the start, as it can prove hard to change course if left too late. A Commission of Inquiry found that some involved in the $1.2 billion Queensland Health payroll scandal tried in vain to warn the government of problems well in advance, with relevant advice failing to even cross the desk of the Health MP.

Contemporary: Lane Beachley — the seven time surfing world champion revealed how a confronting chat with a close friend helped her overcome some of her personal demons and go on to win her sixth title.

6. Not afraid to switch things up and deviate from the norm

What Trump did: let’s face it, there is nothing regular about how Trump operates as a politician, like reinventing how politicians can communicate on twitter.

Why is this important in a public sector context: barely a day goes by without the public service being urged to be more innovative, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging public servants that ‘we must not be restricted by the way things were done in the past’.

Contemporary: Roger Federer — although a staunch traditionalist, realised he needed to upgraded his tennis racket to take advantage of new technology, which ultimately allowed him to develop a more powerful game.

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5 years ago

So he’ll take advice from his daughter, but not from the vast majority of scientists. He issues decrees without running them past (qualified) legal counsel. He apparently negotiates largely by bullying. He prioritises showmanship over substance. Finally, he tells people (such as Richard Branson) that he intends to use his high public office to settle personal vendettas.

Surely, asking the APS to learn from this man can only be satire. Yet it’s not the 1st any more….

Graham Rees
Graham Rees
5 years ago

Good effort, and goes to show one can learn something from almost anything. Now can we talk about the fact his character is completely flawed?

5 years ago

Just a few corrections:

Number 1 – He recognised a problem and then played on peoples fears and prejudices to inspire a following. Very, very similar in fashion to the third reich.

Number 2 – His brand is at an all time low and it is impacting his businesses and his children’s businesses.

Number 3 – His strength is appealing to prejudiced white males and in powerfully bullying opponents. He is a show-man, but it is all bluster and no substance.

Number 4 – Again with the bullying, his early wins showed a lack of diplomacy, or delicacy. Should public policy be the stuff of off the cuff tweets? In a real sense he failed to deliver on the early wins. See below.

Number 5 – He doesn’t seek out good advice and you only need to see the spectacular failures of his immigration ban and the massive own goal of failing to repeal Obamacare to see that.

Number 6 – In failing to follow the norm he failed to get any of the appropriate advice required to pass his executive orders. There’s being innovative and working with the establishment to effect change and then there is being big headed and trying to bully and tear down the establishment for one’s own goals.

In summary, Donald Trump is everything that a modern bureaucracy should not be and is a terrible example of what we should all aspire to be, either professionally or as human beings. To be honest I find your attempt to draw these parallels to be extremely short sighted to the point of being almost offensive. There are so many great leaders out there to draw from.
Trump’s leadership style flies in the face of the “In order to lead one must learn to follow” principle and is a much better example of bullying anf harassment in the work place, something most modern organisations have long since recognised as inimical to good business.

Rufus Martha
Rufus Martha
5 years ago

Are you serious Victoria when you say that Donald Trump can provide leadership lessons
for the Public Service in this country?? Lets examine your position in more depth.
You say he inspired people to go on his journey. There was no inspiration in his
vision, it was based completely on fear, aggression and negativity. His brand
was arrogant and divisive, about winners and losers. People followed him not because of his vision but as a protest against the establishment.

You put down as his major strength showmanship! Really. Is leadership in the
public service simply about faking it? Does there not have to be authenticity
and compassion? What about truth? No big deal, all you need to do is be able to
sell it. The average public servant will buy any message so long as it is sold

Have a quick win, regardless of what it is and regardless of the flow on effect. A quick win is often hurried and thoughtless. You forgot about his first piece of policy making. It was brought in so quickly it
failed to withstand the first court challenge. What public service leaders can
learn from Trump is to slow down, be more thoughtful when you introduce
policies, procedures or substantial change that will have a profound impact
upon the lives of large numbers of people.

You say that Trump seeks out advice and takes it. Trump has surrounded
himself with yes people. He cannot hear anyone who holds an alternative view.
What did he do to the Attorney General who disagreed with his action around
banning people from a range of Muslim countries. He sacked her! This is a
significant problem in the public service, where dissent or disagreement is
seen as being disloyal or not being a team player. Indeed holding an
alternative view could be career limiting. Trump’s leadership style might be viewed as a
harsher version of the current culture.

You final point is that leaders should not be afraid to switch things up. Do we really
want the leader of the free world, who has at his control the largest nuclear
arsenal in the world, to throw things around a little and keep everyone
guessing. I suspect that most people want some certainty and predictability coming from the White House. The thing that I think gets missed in the public service when things are shaken up in a thoughtless way is the substantial transaction costs of all this disruption.

So I am sorry but the only lessons that Donald Trump has about leadership in the public service is what
not to do.

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