Three leadership lessons from the US presidential election
Updated: Mar 9, 2019
An edited version of this article was first published by The Ethics Centre on the 14th November 2016. Click here to view that version.
The seismic shift in global politics during 2016 represents a change in the world order we arguably haven’t seen since the fall of communism. Be it the rise of the far right in Europe, the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), or the recent election of Donald Trump, it appears that the appetite for globalisation and neoliberalism has quite literally fallen off the edge of the proverbial cliff.
Without going into all the detail, there appears to be two primary drivers of this shift. Firstly, globalisation has clearly favoured some segments of the population ahead of others. For example in the U.S., opening up borders and liberalising trade has resulted in significant economic dislocation, especially in rural areas. Since the late 1970s, wage growth for the middle class has been benign whilst the so called “elites” (educated professionals living in cities) have benefited handsomely. The result has been a significant increase in inequality.
Secondly, this rise in economic inequality has been coupled with significant change to the prevailing social order – increased immigration, gay rights, the first black president, and the list goes on. Add to the mix the ever present threat of terrorism, and it is easy to see how a whole swathe of people have become fearful, angry and anti-establishment. In this environment, an authoritarian leader who promises to close the borders, destroy the terrorists and “Make America Great Again” can sound very appealing.
Although these are global trends, leaders at all levels should pause and reflect. There are some vital and important lessons to be learnt from these recent events. Three of the most telling are outlined below.
1. Are you listening to your people?
In many quarters, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have been characterised as a vote against the “establishment”. In their relentless push for globalisation and free markets, the so called “elites” appear to have lost sight of the swathe of people who have not benefited (economically or otherwise) from free trade and open borders. Worse still, some have gone as far to suggest that free speech in the U.S. has suffered in the preceding years, as the ruling elite has either shut down those who challenge their world view or labelled them as “racists”, “bigoted” or “deplorables”.
To be sure, there is without question a fringe element of the right wing movement that is racist and bigoted. However, I refuse to accept that all of the circa 60 million people who voted for Donald Trump last week belong in this fringe. Rather, they are genuine people with genuine concerns whose voices haven’t been heard. Donald Trump became the means through which they could send a message.
So the question for leaders is, are you listening to your people? Do they buy into your vision? And what’s more, do you provide them with a platform that allows them to voice their disapproval? In any movement, it is impossible to bring along all the people. There will always be those who dissent. But when the dissenters reach a critical mass and you are failing to listen, your movement will die very quickly. At this point, people will seek out an alternative leader who will actively sabotage what you are trying to create.
2. The best decision is not necessarily the one that provides the most economic benefit.
It is very easy to make an argument defending the economic benefits associated with globalisation. The free flow of goods and capital has played a pivotal role in our economic prosperity and helped alleviate poverty. Countries have not been constrained to domestic pools of funding when wanting to invest in projects that help drive economic growth. What’s more, they have been able to source goods for domestic consumption at cheaper prices and been provided with access to far more markets for their locally produced products.
However, despite these obvious benefits, there have been people who have not reaped any economic benefits from globalisation. More importantly, the costs borne by these people have not just been economic. In some rural areas across the U.S., industries that sustained communities have been shut down. People whose livelihoods were tied to these industries have suffered enormously – unemployment doesn’t just strip people of a wage but of all the other non-pecuniary benefits associated with belonging to a workplace and providing for a family.
Leaders must recognise that the argument made by the economic rationalist, although compelling, is only one lens through which to look at any decision. And more often than not, this lens is deficient and suboptimal. Instead, one must consider what the social and personal impacts are going to be on the people who are effected by the decision. If these are adverse and can’t be appropriately mitigated, then the best course of action may not be the one that makes the most economic sense.
3. The tone from the top
For me, the biggest disappointment of the recent U.S. presidential race has been the decline in the moral standards of the polity. To be fair, both major party candidates carried some moral baggage. But it was Donald Trump who significantly compromised some of the accepted political norms. Not only was his campaign littered with xenophobia, hatred and spite, he also openly questioned the validity of some of the pillars that support a well-functioning, stable democracy: the press, law enforcement and the electoral process itself.
It is therefore not surprising that in the days since his election, there have been reports of racist attacks and hate crimes across the U.S. that have referenced the Trump victory. Although it is difficult to say whether there has been an increase in the rate of such incidents, the reference to the Donald Trump triumph suggests that he has acted as a source of inspiration. It won’t be surprising if we see a decay in societal moral standards in the U.S. in the coming months given the rhetoric we have heard from the nation’s leaders.
The tone from the top is crucial. Whenever senior leaders send a message that certain attitudes and conduct is condoned, they provide their people with a licence to embrace these attitudes and conduct. And it is not just the explicit announcements of leaders that act as a catalyst – any message, no matter how subtle, can encourage followers to behave in highly inappropriate ways. Unfortunately, over the past few months in the U.S., the messaging from political leaders has been far from subtle. And the resulting damage to the country’s moral capital has been substantial.