The Trump in every leader
DONALD TRUMP cheerfully breaks all the rules of good leadership, as codified in management books and taught in business schools. The modern CEO is supposed to be a consummate team player, modest and self-effacing, committed to equality and diversity, good at handling risk and adept at dealing with the press. Mr Trump flies around in a private plane with his name emblazoned on it. He humiliates job applicants in his television show, “The Apprentice”. Four Trump-themed businesses have declared bankruptcy since 1991. He refers to women as “pieces of ass” and boasts about how well he gets on with “the blacks”. NBC and Univision have stopped broadcasting his “Miss USA” and “Miss Universe” competitions over his comments on Mexican immigrants. He has also faced a firestorm of criticism for his misogynist comments on a Fox News journalist, Megyn Kelly.
But is there a little bit of Mr Trump in all powerful people? This question kept occurring to your columnist while reading a new book, “Friend and Foe”, by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer. The two academics are among the pioneers of a technique called “power priming”, that helps people feel more masterful. They find that, once primed for power, even the most reticent people experience significant changes in their behaviour.
The book explains that you can prime people for power in a number of ways. You can get them to remember a time when they had power over other people. You get them to adopt a power posture—putting their hands on their hips or thrusting out their chests like gorillas (a technique developed by Dana Carney of the University of California, Berkeley). Or you can get them to listen to power anthems such as “In Da Club” by 50 Cent. This is a technique favoured by sports stars such as Serena Williams, a tennis player, who often wears headphones when she walks on court.
Making people more self-confident is good. But power also makes them more self-centred. In one study, researchers asked people to draw a capital “E” on their foreheads. People who had been power-primed were almost three times as likely to draw the E backwards—that is, from their own perspective rather than the perspective of onlookers—than those who had not. In another study, researchers asked people to play the role of boss and employee for a while, and then gave them a budget to buy chocolates, first for themselves and then for other people. The “bosses” bought 32 chocolates when buying for themselves but only 11 chocolates when buying for others. The “employees” bought 37 chocolates when buying for others but only 14 for themselves.
Power makes people more willing to take risks. For example, people who are primed for power, women as well as men, are more likely to have sex without a condom. Power also makes people more likely to break rules, for example by manipulating evidence to suit their purposes. Researchers asked people to roll a set of dice to determine the number of lottery tickets they would receive—a roll of two would earn two tickets—and then report the roll of their dice to the invigilator. People who were primed were more likely to over-report their scores. Finally, power turns people into hypocrites: not only are powerful people more likely to cheat, they are also more likely to condemn cheating or other forms of moral failure in other people.
Some people regard all this as an argument for seeking to do away with strong leaders. A number of firms have introduced “co-CEOs” to make their leadership less Trump-ety and more democratic; others have replaced all their internal hierarchy with a “holacracy”—a set of overlapping, self-organising teams. But companies led by co-CEOs, such as Deutsche Bank, have usually ended up regretting it. And holacracy is hollow: everybody who works for Zappos, an internet retailer that pioneered the idea, knows that the firm is really run by its founder, Tony Hsieh.
Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford Business School has much more sensible advice in another new book, “Leadership BS”. Recognise that organisations need hierarchy if they are not to descend into dithering anarchy. Accept that powerful people have a dark side. And adjust your thinking to deal with reality.
Speaking truth to power
Companies need to introduce structures that compel bosses to listen to others’ opinions. The least they can do is to divide the jobs of CEO and chairman, and to appoint a powerful “lead” director to their boards. But there are more radical ideas floating around. One is to appoint a maverick director whose main job is to dispute the boss’s arguments, somewhat like the “leader of the official opposition”, who gets paid to hound British prime ministers across the debating chamber. Another is to make it possible for low-status workers to question the boss’s decisions without suffering consequences: the Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore, encourages nurses to speak up if they think a surgeon has missed out a step in a pre-op checklist. But procedures can only go so far, given the boss’s ability to write the rules. The most important thing firms can do is to make sure they appoint somebody who can handle power. Messrs Galinsky and Schweitzer recommend a simple test: watch carefully how a prospective boss addresses powerless people such as security guards and waiters.
Bosses themselves need to recognise that power can be a poison as well as an aphrodisiac. They should spend as much of their spare time as possible with their families rather than hobnobbing with other powerful people. They ought to establish a relationship with a mentor who is licensed to speak to them frankly: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has formed such a bond with Donald Graham, a former publisher of the Washington Post. Mr Trump has built a successful career by flouting the rules of good management. Most other people will find that, if they let their inner Trump get out of control, they will end up in the same position as the unsuccessful candidates on his television programme, humiliated and fired.