Real Leaders

Why is Donald Trump So Popular?

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

I know many of you might be gagging at the title of this article. After all, what could that nasty narcissist tell us about popularity and leadership? As it turns out, quite a bit.

I always find election time an interesting laboratory of leadership behavior… or misbehavior. This past election cycle is particularly interesting because we had a prominent woman, Hillary Clinton, running against an army of mostly swashbuckling, hard, power men. It’s been crazier than a reality TV show, and would be hilarious if it wasn’t for the fact that these people actually auditioned to run our nation and lead the free world. And even crazier that a reality TV show celebrity ended up winning.

So that brings me to Donald Trump and his shocking popularity among a select number of voters. How could a man who is so obviously flawed, and who has put forth no credible, positive ideas, be so popular? And he is popular. Even if you despise him you are probably interested in what he has to say. Psychologists and leadership researchers are not surprised by his ability to mesmerize. Let me explain why.

Harvard researchers John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut explain in their book “Compelling People” that human beings are wired to follow people who are both strong and warm. Strength is primarily communicated through confidence. Warmth is demonstrated through empathy. It’s pretty simple. If you believe a leader understands your personal hopes and fears, is rock-solid confident, and can defend you from your fears and help you realize your hopes, they will gain your support.

The world is a very confusing and scary place right now. The forces of violence and our economic well-being seem out of control. So when someone shows up brimming with insane levels of confidence (strength), and who promises to defend you against your greatest fears (empathy-warmth) they will get your attention.

One other thing, we like things simple. We hate to hear that things are complicated. We want to depend on people who seem clear and committed and communicate simple solutions. Believe it or not, Donald Trump scores very high with people who share common fears, want simple solutions (like building a wall), and allow themselves to be caught in the tractor beam of his confidence.

Trump’s leadership persona is so powerful that his supporters don’t care that he is self-obsessed, because they believe that his interests in their interests overlap. And because he’s a man. Psychologists tell us that men can get away with a lot more abrasive, self aggrandizing behavior than women. In fact, it’s kind of expected. Trump is just behaving like a super-strong man. After all, his leadership style is not that different from a young Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Winston Churchill.

The problem with this leadership style is that it requires the leader to be a genius. If you are truly that confident in yourself, you’d better know what the hell you’re doing… otherwise you’re just a belligerent idiot.

Now let’s take a look at Hillary Clinton. She too seemed confident. Her problem was that for many voters it was unclear whether she was fighting for them or fighting for herself. This made her score low in perceived trustworthiness. This is a big problem for a woman candidate. Gender research is clear that we expect men to be self-interested. So men can advocate for themselves, their wealth, status and careers without losing credibility. However, we don’t like women doing that. Thousands of years of human culture have biased our minds to trust women who advocate for others but make their personal interests invisible.

When I’m helping women advance in the workplace or get raises I coach them to make those requests so that they can make bigger and better contributions to the organization. I counsel them not to say things like: “I deserve this.” I agree, this may be unfair but it’s how our brains are wired.  If you want some more evidence consider Elizabeth Warren’s popularity with her supporters.

Elizabeth Warren has become a powerful female leader because she projects very strong ‘mother-energy.’ Her message and policy position strongly advocate for low-power people. That seems ‘right’ for a woman leader. Hillary was trying to adopt a similar leadership communication style but did not convince many doubters that she would put their interests above her and Bill’s interests. (Please, Hillary supporters don’t be mad at me, I’m only saying what gender research explains about the way she polled.)

Ideal leadership lies somewhere between the magical synergy of strength and warmth. Or, as I teach it, between hard and soft. That synergy point is called SMART Power.

As a point of reference, two leaders spring to mind as models of SMART power. Abraham Lincoln was extraordinarily strong. He had an unwavering commitment to keeping our nation united even as he fought to transcend our founder’s ‘original sin’ of legalizing slavery. The consistency of his advocacy for national unity and freedom for all made him the immovable force that was essential for success. He was truly strong in hard moments. At the same time he possessed and expressed transformative empathy for everyone from slave to slave-owner and for soldiers on both the North and South.

Eleanor Roosevelt is the second SMART political leader I think of. She was strong. She had to be. She lived in the same White House with her charismatic, brilliant philandering husband because she believed she had a gift to give our nation that could only be given as the First Lady.

As First Lady she wrote an internationally syndicated newspaper column that became the conscience of the nation. She wrote passionately of the plight of the poor and the exploited. She helped galvanize political will for the New Deal. She was nearly single-handedly responsible for the desegregation of our army and the GI Bill. She was a principal driver of the United Nations and the main architect of the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights. All the while she was told she was both too uppity and too ugly to publicly promote these ideas. She was strong and warm, hard and soft… SMART.

History shows that one thing is clear. Leaders who are only strong or hard get us into the most trouble. They use fear to inspire loyalty and blind support. Nevertheless, it is easy for such leaders to become powerful. The leaders who presided over most of the 20th century were Stalin, Mao and Hitler.

Leaders who are empathetic but not strong quickly lose their power. For the most part we don’t even remember their names.

So how about you? If you are naturally empathetic the world is calling for you to be strong. Be clear on your vision. Be unafraid and relentless in the advocacy for a better business, healthier and happier employees, enriched customers and a sustainable future in order to create profitable growth.

If you are strong and naturally confident the world is calling you to pursue more than your own self-interest.  Tap into your deep moral ambition. Make your children proud of what you’re accomplishing.

Put simply… our future is calling you to be Lincoln not Trump.

Note: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by our contributors and authors are not necessarily those of Real Leaders.


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