Great leaders are respected, admired – not feared
Lessons from what I found wrapped under the tree this year
Jan 2, 2019
Bob Woodward's book Fear: Trump in the White House offers an in-depth look into leadership at the highest level of the U.S. government.
By Todd Humber
I will never abandon my child-like wonder for the holiday season. The smell of cookie dough, turkey roasting in the oven, the nutmeg on top of the eggnog — it’s an olfactory time machine that transports me back to simpler days.
Coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to find the gifts under the tree and, more importantly, the family I love gathered around it — well, how can that ever get old?
This year, I was thrilled to find a copy of Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward wrapped neatly with my name on it. (Thanks, Cali.) Woodward, of course, is the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who is best known for his coverage of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon. To every journalist, he is an icon — present company included.
I dove into it.
I already knew most of the jaw-dropping stories that made headlines when the book was released. It opens, after all, with the revelation that Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser in the White House, had stolen a paper off Trump’s desk to ensure he wouldn’t sign it. It was a draft letter terminating a free trade agreement with South Korea. Explosive stuff.
But I knew there would be so much more, and I was not disappointed. One of the more fascinating peek behind the curtains came courtesy of Reince Priebus, who was the president’s first chief of staff. I won’t bore you with all the details (you really should read it for yourself), but Priebus hit a breaking point.
He submitted his resignation. In a conversation with Trump about who should replace him, Trump suggested John Kelly, who at the time was the secretary of homeland security and a retired four-star general. Priebus endorsed the move, though Kelly had yet to be offered the gig.
Then talk turned to how to handle his departure – the changing of a U.S. president’s chief of staff is a pretty big deal, after all. An excerpt from Woodward:
Priebus was concerned about the optics of his departure. We can do it this weekend, he said, or we can do a press release. Or do it Monday. Whatever you want to do. “I’m ready to do it how you want to do it.”
“Maybe we’ll do it this weekend,” Trump said. What are you going to do?
Priebus hoped to join his old law firm.
Trump gave him a big hug. “We’ll figure it out,” he said. “You’re the man.”
Air Force One landed. Priebus walked off down the ramp. Rain dotted his black SUV, where Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino were waiting for him. He felt as good about the situation as possible.
He got an alert for a presidential tweet. He looked down at the latest from @realdonaldtrump. “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American…”
“Unbelievable!” thought Priebus. “Is this serious?”
He had just talked to Trump about waiting.
Here’s the kicker – not only did Trump blindside Priebus with the hair-trigger announcement, but he hadn’t even bothered to ask Kelly if he wanted the job. Again, from Woodward:
Caught by surprise, Kelly had gone dark for several hours. He’d had to call his wife and explain that he had no choice but to accept after being offered one of the most important jobs in the world via tweet.
Priebus also said Trump “has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.”
I have long argued in this space there is no more important leadership trait than empathy. The Priebus-Kelly termination and hiring by tweet is but one example in Woodward’s book of Trump’s style. It goes a long way to explain why he is not an effective leader and why he hasn’t been able to accomplish much in the first two years of his presidency, despite having Republican majorities in both the house and senate.
Eschewing empathy, Trump prefers to get his power from fear. He told exactly that to Woodward in March 2016.
“Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.”
Maybe. If you hold a gun to my head, I will fear you and I will probably do what you command.
But effective power is not rooted in fear. It has roots running far deeper in respect, empathy and admiration. Leaders should always aim to inspire, not make their subordinates cower in fear.
That’s the lesson Trump has yet to learn. That is one of the things Woodward, albeit unknowingly, revealed in story after story that paint a picture of leadership in chaos.
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Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber