This week brought yet another humiliation of a Trump cabinet official at the hands of the president himself.
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley suffered the latest indignity when she claimed more sanctions on Russia would be coming shortly, only to have top White House officials say she was “confused” and—in a bit of damage control that really didn’t control much damage—out of the loop.
The flap is just the latest example of the Trump presidency eschewing the traditional presidential practices of leadership, communications, and management. Not only did President Trump fail to adequately communicate his shifting positions regarding the potential sanctions, he hung one of his most respected assets out to dry—and then publicly blamed her.
Why does this nonsense keep happening?
It would be easy to write off the Trump Administration as a chaotic joke, but the incompetence we are witnessing is Trump reaping what he has sown. When you elect an inexperienced, “norm-breaking” president, you don’t get to pick and choose the norms you want to break. Trump’s managerial style is so unorthodox that you would be hard-pressed to find any successful leader who would honestly endorse his approach. Rather than studying great servant leaders (Jesus, Washington, Lincoln, et al.) or business and leadership gurus (Dale Carnegie, John Maxwell, Peter Drucker, et al.), Trump’s guide to leadership appears to be the cynical and Machiavellian 48 Laws of Power—and it shows.
Let’s start at the beginning. A good leader must have a clear vision. Dr. Martin Luther King’s was a dream “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This was simple, inspirational, and motivational. What is Donald Trump’s vision?
Trump’s campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”—was a pretty good one. Good enough, in fact, that a similar (if more inclusive) slogan appeared on campaign posters for Ronald Reagan in 1984. It offered voters a Rorsach test; whatever they thought would make America great again, they could ascribe to the candidate. Amidst the blistering criticisms Trump leveled against his 2016 opponents, this core message even offered a hint of optimism: the suggestion was that it was still within our power to make America great again, if we elected Trump.
However, the reason it works as a slogan is also the reason it fails as a governing philosophy. The way to make America great is generally left open to interpretation.
This choose-your-own-adventure style is problematic for people serving in an administration. In their book Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanis argue that a shared vision is important so that, “People can make difficult decisions without having to appeal to higher levels in the organization each time because they know what end results are desired.” The same principle applies to running a presidential administration. “Everybody around [Reagan] had a good idea of who he was and what he would do,” wrote Peggy Noonan. “He’d been in public life for twenty years, [and] they knew what he stood for.”
Donald Trump never served in public office before, and nobody knows where he stands on big issues in part because, it seems, he doesn’t know where he stands either. Contrast that with Reagan: The Gipper’s promise to Make America Great Again was backed by a governing philosophy and conservative agenda that his subordinates intuitively understood.
Now, consider the cases of Haley and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They surely knew that Trump wanted to “make America great again,” and I’m sure they knew he wanted to put “America First.” But it’s unclear from one day to the next how that applies to diplomacy or sanctions. As said by Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, and White House Chief of Staff: Trump is “erratic and very unpredictable.” As a result, not only are Trump’s subordinates not empowered to make decisions, they’re not even sure what those presidential decisions are.
Of course, Trump’s subordinates aren’t the only ones left guessing. U.S. Senators also have no idea what he wants them to do. Should America re-enter the TPP or not? Nobody knows. How about DACA? Trump said he would “take the heat” regarding an immigration bill, but that promise didn’t last long. Okay, then how about gun control? Chuck Schumer said it’s “like negotiating with Jell-O.”
I hate to keep coming back to Reagan, but I think it’s instructive because Trump is in some ways like Reagan (see Henry Olsen). And yet, in so many other ways pertinent to this discussion, the two men couldn’t be more different. Aside from being the “great communicator,” Ronald Reagan was known as the great delegator. It sometimes got him in trouble (see Iran-Contra) but it also made him effective.
“The way I work is to identify the problem, find the right individuals to do the job, and then let them go to it. I've found this invariably brings out the best in people. They seem to rise to their full capability, and in the long run you get more done,” Reagan explained in 1987.
Reagan also backed up his people when the heat was on. James Strock, author of Reagan on Leadership, notes that, “Reagan’s unequivocal backing of the strong stance advocated by Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis in the PATCO strike put people inside and outside the administration that the chief executive would back up subordinates under challenge.”
Now, compare this with Donald Trump’s version of leadership, which involves micromanagement and undermining his underlings. What message did Trump send to other subordinates by throwing Haley under the bus? I think the message is clear: Risk aversion is better than boldness. And don’t expect the president to ever have your back if things go wrong—even if it’s not your fault.
If you wonder why morale is low, leaks occur, and staff turnover is high, this is the probable reason.
In the end, these problems stem from a fundamental flaw. The president lacks integrity, grace, humility, dignity, courage, and empathy. As Steven Covey put it in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is telling the truth—in other words, conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words—in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations.”
What is the impact of a capricious president who lacks vision and undermines his aides? Nobody knows. But what’s become pretty evident is that Schumer was right: This presidency is Jell-O.