Barely two weeks into the Trump presidency and the United States is already less great and weaker
than it was before he took office. The reason for that is Trump’s failure to grasp the essence of leadership and the unique role that the United States has a moral exemplar among nations of the world.
MBA and other graduate programs are littered with leadership classes. A ton of ink has been spilled seeking to describe the essence of leadership, especially for the presidency. But James MacGregor Burns’ 1978 Leadership is still the single best book that joins these topics. In it Burns distinguishes between two types of leadership–transactional and transformational. Transactional is the quid pro quo of cutting deals, the ordinary game of bargaining, but real leadership is transformational. A transformational leader literally transforms institutions or the world, forging new ways to look and organize the world. Presidents such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were transformative.
But to be a transformative leader sometime special is required–moral authority. Transforming leadership happens when "one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality." Burns once stated succinctly that real transformative leadership is authority guided by moral principle. Authoritarians exert mere power or brute force, but real leadership has a moral dimension capable of transforming and moving people in ways that mere transactional bargaining cannot.
For the most successful of US presidents, the concept of moral leadership is enhanced by the country’s special status in the world. Maybe it goes back to the concept of American exceptionalism rooted in Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 speech “A Model of Christian Charity” he gave on the ship Arbella before it docked in Massachusetts colony where he described this new place as a “shining city upon the hill.” For many coming to America we were as Abraham Lincoln as others declared, the “last great hope” on Earth to found a just and ethical country. Part of what makes the United States great is it moral leadership–the defender of human rights, democracy, and its willing to play fair for the right causes and reasons. This country’s strength was not simply the hard power of bombs and bullets, but as Paul Kennedy said, it also included our soft power of moral leadership and authority in the world that makes it possible to criticize dictators and despots. The power to persuade includes a moral position.
None of this is something that Trump understands. First his concept of leadership is narrow and transactional. Trump’s entire Art of the Deal is an ode to quid pro quo bargaining in its thinnest sense. Good negotiators tell you that real bargaining is not zero sum, it leaves both sides feeling good because both are winners. The Art of the Deal is about how Trump took advantage of others for selfish or personal reasons, not to enhance the position of both sides. But even if the Art of the Deal was more, it still describes a world of transactions and not transformation. Trump’s concept of leadership is woefully thin and confined to this narrow notion of quid pro quo. It is about the US getting better one-on-one deals with other countries that puts American first. It is hardly a form of leadership that rebuilds or builds structures and institutions in ways to help the country.
But Trump also misunderstands the importance of American exceptionalism and the gravity it exercises in the world. America’s real authority–which includes its soft power–rests upon its moral status in the world. If we respect individual rights at home, support freedom of the press, and obey rule of law, it makes it easier to criticize authoritarians and regimes around the world that fail to do that. Trump simply does not understand that. Eschewing respect for the press, his Muslim travel ban, or in his recent prayer breakfast speech declaring only “citizens can practice their beliefs without fear of hostility or a fear of violence,” Trump undermines not only domestically the values that are important to American democracy but he vastly weakens the moral position of the United States and his presidency in the world.