I alone can fix it.
Donald Trump referring to America’s problems.
Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, wrote that heroic leaders, once a godsend, are now a public menace. Many of Donald Trump’s followers think of him as a heroic leader—the godsend kind. I don’t think he’s a leader, godsent, or heroic, but he does menace us daily.
Heroic leaders become especially prevalent in times of crisis and transformation when traditional mechanisms for change and conflict resolution struggle under great strain or have broken down: customs; traditions; established authority; and shared vision, values, and purpose. Our president causes great anxiety and conflict and batters our democracy daily. And his disarray adds to the already existing national and global problems and is bad for the health of the American people who he pits against one other.
In his book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns defined leadership as, leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations–the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations–of both leaders and followers.
He wrote: …beyond that, the transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower. The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.
MacGregor Burns described a dark side of heroic leadership as a relationship between leader and follower in which followers place great faith, often unfounded, in the heroes ability to overcome obstacles and crises. The followers don’t think for themselves and avoid personal responsibility by projecting their fears, aggression, and aspirations onto the hero as a symbolic solution to the conflict inherent in change. Jessica Flanigan, a philosopher at the Jepson School at the University of Richmond wrote that charismatic or heroic leaders can inspire non-thinking followers to act wrongly for the wrong reasons. Stephen L. Carter wrote in the NY Times that supporters will think the wrong thing is right.
Followers and politicians who deify leaders collude in the heroic leader syndrome. It’s difficult for even normal people, much less Trump–the poster boy for narcissism, to resist being treated as someone special. It feels good to be treated like an all-powerful and perfect man who receives mass support from followers. Trump demands idolization, and his boot-licking supporters feed his ego daily. Their conformity and compliance enable Trump’s immoral behavior and his repulsive personality. By enabling him, they diminish themselves. They lose themselves and by doing so try to escape personal responsibility.
How can a leader who is a hoax surrounded by second rate advisors and lily-livered politicians be effective or make good decisions? The truth-tellers have disappeared from Trump’s Cabinet and White House. Trump lost his humanity somewhere and sometime long ago. He’s not capable of healthy relationships with followers. He’s a figurehead watching Fox News surrounded by toadying underlings. Lots of “executive time” on his calendar gives him time to construct the appearance of competence and contribution while he eats KFC and watches television. Trump tries to appear a “winner” by lying chronically, blaming always, and covering up his messes. And his true-believers fall for it all. Mediocrity is the norm.
Such a sub-optimal operation becomes vulnerable to outside threats: Russia interferes in our elections, and Trump/McConnell block efforts to protect our votes. History will not be kind to the Trump years or those who lost their values and aided and conspired with him.
Trump’s contributions are often illusionary, inflated greatly, with credit for anything good frequently belonging to others and those who preceded him. Some of what he claims as great achievements cause a threat to the country and planet: fossil fuels and climate change.
The belief that he can direct and control global and national forces is delusional. Living systems, in time of great change, are too complex and unmanageable for one leader to bring about superlative performance, much less a bungler.
People who think know that one person cannot rescue us even as we look for heroes in the strangest places. We need value-driven leadership behavior by many at all levels of our nation and political system. Political leaders must first know America’s reality. Trump and those around him live in a false past; they do not live in the reality of America today.
We need, however, more than distributed leadership in our government and organizations. We also need the few extraordinary women and men who go far beyond leadership in their own development. People, who move through the chaos with courage, maintain their ideals, carry our hope, and reflect back to supporters the deep potential within each of us. They are our heroes and heroines.
Often invisible, people with such gifts are the rebels and outliers of the government, organizations, and enterprises. The get marginalized often because they threaten ineffectual leaders. Trump marginalizes people every day. We need these rebels and outliers to be courageous as they stand out from the ordinary and lead our own development.
The leadership Burns described is about whole people in a symbiotic and transforming relationship with one another–leaders and followers. This leadership is about the character: “The intellectual and moral texture into which all our life long we have been weaving up the inward life that is in us” (Oxford dictionary). Leadership is about who we are as men and women.
True leaders strive to live by core values–not what is politically correct, expedient, in their self-interest, or even fair.
Stephen L. Carter said of integrity:
Integrity, as I will use the term, requires three steps (1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.
Courage is how we demonstrate our character.
In 2020, we will have one of the most important elections in our nation’s history. When I evaluate a presidential candidate, I think first of their character. A person of character models goodness: caring, empathy, and compassion for all of humanity. A person of character has a strong inner core: deep values they will not betray, and a purpose greater than her own ego. A visionary, she has a positive, hopeful, sustainable and forward-looking dream for the future of America and the planet. And she has plans for how she will make the vision real–she also tells the truth.
Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. Had he been a positive person he would have been seen as a clown to laugh at. Instead, a malicious man, he brought to light and gave power to the dark side of America’s history. Not heroic; not a leader. Trump uses presidential power to try to return America to her darkest ways and become the bleak hero of people who do not think for themselves.
We need a president who puts the sustainability of our planet and our democracy ahead of personal greed, selfishness, and addictive lust for power. A president who will evolve our goodness as Americans, restore America as the role model for the nations of the planet and a president who will drain the swamp Trump brought to the White House.
President John Kennedy was to deliver a speech in Austin, TX on the night he was assassinated.
A quote from the speech for our nation’s Senators and Representatives at all levels of government:
Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a Party is not to our Party alone, but to the nation, and, indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power but the preservation of peace and freedom. So let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake. Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause — united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future — and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.
3 thoughts on “HEROIC LEADERSHIP”
Good piece,Tom and I agree heartily.
But having spent two tours in a war zone and dealt with PTSD for 36 years, while working in the middle of the Military Industrial Complex with its waste, fraud and abuse I tend to take an other than single hero/single villain perspective on the issue of where we are today as a country and where we are headed.
I have combination of cynicism and optimism – I guess you could call it hope.
Excellent analysis and very well said, Tom. Trump is the first president – and hopefully, God help us, the last – who is utterly without values or ideology. He is singularly driven by an insatiable need to be adored and worshiped by a base that perpetrates his delusion of being special.
Great column, Tom, and well said. I have been in the process of sending 5 free faxes (FaxZero.com) each day to Democratic Congress people to encourage them to pressure The Speaker to begin impeachment proceedings. I am working my way through the alphabet & I just finished with New Jersey. In addition to my statement, I included your quote by JFK — what a statesman he was! Thanks for sharing that.