Not all leaders are experts, but great senior leaders know how to get the best from their teams
It’s been two weeks since the world woke to the news that Donald Trump had won the race for the American Presidency – news that shocked many, as a controversial candidate with little political experience hadn’t been expected to perform so well. His win proves many things – not least that complacency has no place in leadership, and that people who are unhappy with the status quo are attracted to potential leaders who promise to bring change.
While ASK had no horse in this particular race – ‘not our circus, not our monkeys’, to borrow a phrase – and there are critical differences between countries and companies, the US Election result raises important points. Trump, with no past political experience, may have seemed like a strange choice, but his very lack of experience seems to a key part of his appeal to people. Neither shaped nor tainted by the way things have always been done, perhaps he can change them?
Great leadership is twofold. It’s about inspiration – about making people believe in your dreams for the future, whatever organisation you’re taking the helm of – and about positioning the right people in the right places to ensure that change can be delivered. Trump is open about his lack of knowledge in some areas of the leadership – it’s been reported that his team were surprised to hear that would have to select new staff for the Whitehouse. Guided through the transition period and process by Obama, who is carefully mentoring his successor, his initial attention as President Elect is focussed on who will serve under him.
These decisions are how Trump will display his real leadership skills. His job isn’t to lead America on a day-to-day basis, but to choose the people who will do so and to be the face of the decisions that are taken. He may not have the political experience of those he defeated, but the country must still be led and governed: he’ll have to surround himself with a strong team and imbue them his vision.
This approach to leadership isn’t unique to Trump’s presidency – it’s something that we see regularly on a smaller scale in organisations around the world. When a leader has climbed the ladder from within and knows nothing but this industry or organisation, their worldview is limited by their experience: they might be experts in the field, but they haven’t got an overview of the world outside it, or their place in that world. They must now earn their status on the basis of their leadership skills and behaviours, rather than relying on the respect that their knowledge and expertise has previously given them.
A leader who comes in from the outside may not understand the minutiae of how this organisation works – but that can be as much a strength as a weakness, as they might be more able to quickly identify where changes are needed, where ‘the way things are done’ no longer works, and how to streamline decision making and action to the benefit of the whole business.
[Countries are, of course, not companies, and CEOs are appointed, not elected. But it’s easy to wonder if Presidents might be a future research topic for Amanda Goodall, whose research into fields as disparate as research universities and Formula 1 racing has argued that:
Fifty years ago, as society switched from family-owned businesses and employment through entitlement, to a more meritocratic and efficient approach to enterprise, good management was crucial-as it still is today. The pendulum may have swung too far towards general management functions and away from core business functions however.
What Trump did – very well – during his campaign was to hear and voice what the people wanted. It may have been a campaign made of buzzwords, button-pushing and passion, but his stance of “I hear you, and will give you what you want” connected, and swung enough of the country his way. His competitor – pre-equipped with decades of hands-on experience and a lifetime of working in politics – and her campaign were so convinced that inexperience couldn’t win that offered not change but more of the same. They believed in the way things were, and offered nothing new or significant; they also believed that their chosen leader would win simply because she had the right CV.
Trump may not know how to be president – but he knows how to lead, and has been doing so for decades, albeit in a very different context. Indeed, until Inauguration Day he is not even yet in post. The real test comes after: his strength in becoming President Elect has been in tapping into what people want – and promising that he can deliver it. For everyone’s sake, we hope that he – and his advisors – are mindful of the Harvard Business Review research that showed that the best guide to future success after being elevated to a senior role is not aspiration (which on its own achieves very little), nor engagement (successful in 13% of cases) but ability.
Having promised to lead, he must now do so – and earn the trust of those who have put him in office, and in power. The only way that he can do that is by building a strong team around him who can guide him through the process of the changes he promised, and ensure that nobody is hurt in the process.
If you want to revitalise your workforce and change the way your business performs, your approach to leadership may need to change first. Our bespoke learning programmes are designed alongside your business leaders to identify the long-term goals of your brand and bring them to fruition.
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