By Steve Adubato, PhD
I appeared on CNN recently, offering commentary on the 2016 Presidential Campaign. During this segment, I was asked to explain the inexplicable success Donald Trump is having in recent polls of Republican voters. This is after Trump made off-the-wall and reprehensible comments talking about Mexican immigrants coming to the US, calling some of them “rapists” as well as those that “bring crime.” (Trump said he assumed some of them were good people.)
As usual, Trump offered no documented proof of his outlandish comments, yet, it clearly had some appeal to a certain segment of the Republican electorate. It’s a funny thing about Donald Trump – he says whatever comes into his mind at a given moment but, rarely, is what he says accurate. (Trump insisted a while back that President Obama wasn’t a US citizen without a shred of proof for such an absurd charge against the leader of our country.) And when pressured, he virtually never takes responsibility or apologizes. He did neither in the case of his comments on Mexican immigrants even though he has been roundly criticized by all quarters; including, most recently, Republican challenger Jeb Bush. In fact, he doubled down by saying, “All I’m doing is telling the truth.” He added that the recent polls, which show him doing well, are further proof that he’s right. As if real leadership is about telling a certain segment of the population what they want to hear.
But one of the worst things about Donald Trump as a contender for the Oval Office is that he is simply NOT trustworthy. Just take a look at his track record as a businessman, which he claims is stellar. In fact, when he announced his run for president, he said one of his qualifications is that he is “really rich” and that he is consistently “a winner” in business. This is what America really needs, according to The Donald.
I am writing about Trump in my upcoming book, “Lessons in Leadership”, as a great case study regarding the fact that notoriety should never be confused with leadership. For starters, consider when Trump came into Atlantic City telling folks that his brand would dramatically transform the casino / ocean landscape. He said that his brand was tied to elegance and opulence, nothing but the best. He said it would dwarf and outperform the other casinos mostly because he – Donald Trump – would be leading the charge.
But that’s not exactly the way things went down in Atlantic City. Over time, Trump’s casinos did not do well. They had serious financial problems and Trump continually went back to the banks begging for dollars to keep his brand and his casinos afloat. But ultimately, when things came crashing down for the so-called Trump Empire in Atlantic City, Trump took absolutely no responsibility. When the casinos built up an embarrassing amount of debt the only way Trump could survive and his casinos could survive was separately. Trump was forcibly removed from the management team. He had lost the trust of creditors. He had a history of not always paying his bills when he was supposed to and not being up front as to the reasons why.
When Trump experienced bankruptcy #3 because he couldn’t pay his debtors, Trump’s ultimate reason was, “I’m an investor… I’m not running that company,” except the company he was referring to was in fact Trump Entertainment. His name was in the company. The brand was Trump, but in the end he said he had nothing to do with why the company ultimately was going belly up. He blamed the failure on others and simply tried to walk away as if he had never said those things upon his entrance into Atlantic City. As if he never promised that he would change the landscape of Atlantic City and teach people ultimately “The Art of the Deal” (one of many of Trump’s books on how to succeed in business that have sold wildly). Again notoriety is NOT leadership.
What really concerns me about Donald Trump – the guy who says he should be America’s next leader – is that he doesn’t take responsibility when things go wrong; instead he blames others but he wants all the credit when things are glitzy and glamorous and The Donald can be The Donald. But to me the value of a brand that you can count on is largely a product of how the leader, much less the namesake of the brand, stands up or doesn’t when things go wrong. If you’re going to put your name on everything, not just casinos and buildings, but TV shows, water bottles, golf courses, shirts at those golf courses (his golf courses are in fact first rate), everything – (Trump also put his name on a university, Trump University, which was shut down and is mired in lawsuits by students who said they got ripped off by Trump after the Better Business Bureau gave Trump University an absolutely terrible independent evaluation) – real leaders must take responsibility when things go wrong for organizations they are so closely tied to or when their name is slapped all over it.
Yes, Trump is great showman. He’s great for those of us in the media looking for red meat and outrageous quotes from a political candidate. But he’s no real leader. He’s a carnival barker. He’s the former host of a celebrity reality show that set up conflict and drama simply so that Trump, in a highly produced setting, could look into the camera and tell a contestant, “You’re fired!” That’s not leadership. That’s TV production. That’s show business. That’s entertainment and notoriety. Real leadership is about owning your mistakes. It’s about saying responsible things on the campaign trail and when you don’t or you screw up, admitting it, rather than blaming others when they criticize you. It’s about having humility and the confidence to apologize when you have clearly said something that is outrageously offensive. Real leadership is about offering real solutions to complex problems, not telling people you should be elected because you’re “really rich.”
Donald Trump is a joke. But the bigger joke is that we’re actually talking about him in a serious way because apparently the Republican field for President is perceived to not be strong enough that it has allowed for someone like Donald Trump to be taken seriously. Now that’s really scary. But it’s early, and like I said notoriety should never be confused with real leadership.