ver the last four years, our nation has witnessed a case study in toxic leadership.
We’ve watched as perhaps the most prominent leader in America, Donald Trump, engaged in inexcusable behavior. He’s caged children, expressed empathy for and encouraged extremists, supported white supremacy, eliminated protections for people of color and people who are LGBTQ, and incited a riot that attacked our democratic institutions. I could continue this list, but it would be longer than the British colonist’s 1776 declaration to King George.
These are the manifestations of toxic leadership, and they are firmly rooted in destructive governance and managerial behaviors. Whether you manage one person or lead a team of 100 people, here are ten toxic Trump traits you should avoid. While I may only share one or two examples of each trait, there are too many instances to provide an exhaustive list.
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#1: Hire carelessly
Trump often hired quickly without thoroughly vetting candidates for vitally important jobs. Back in 2018, the Trump administration fired John McEntee after a federal investigation determined that he had committed serious financial crimes. Within a day of losing his job, the Trump Campaign hired McEntee as a senior advisor. Source: NY Mag.
Of course, rapid and careless hiring extended beyond those working in the White House. In 2018, NBC reported that a federally-run Texas detention center confining thousands of children was not conducting FBI fingerprint checks on employees at the facility. Source: NBC.
The lackadaisical approach to hiring contributed to Trump having a 34% staff turnover rate in the first year of his presidency. Source: Fortune.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: If a third of your staff leave in their first 12 months, your ineffective hiring will impact all areas of your operation.
#2: Value loyalty over competence
There are countless examples of Trump valuing loyalty over competence. First and foremost, there’s the obvious fact that he hired more family members than any other modern President I can recall.
But let’s return to John McEntee again. Less than two years after being fired and escorted from the White House, John McEntee returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to run the Presidential Personnel Office. McEntee, a 29-year-old former college football player with minimal relevant experience, was now the HR manager for the White House. In this role, he was assigned the task of identifying and removing political appointees and career officials deemed insufficiently loyal to the administration. Source: Wiki. According to Axios, Trump viewed him as the “ultimate loyalist, and . . . assigned him the powerful role of picking personnel across the federal government.”
With a pandemic and economic crisis on the horizon, Trump was focused on rooting out those who weren’t loyal instead of preparing for catastrophe.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: Cult-like unwavering loyalty is not only undesirable, it’s a recipe for a disaster.
#3: Publicly shame and fire your team
The Atlantic noted that “Everyone who works for Trump has to know . . . that the slavish loyalty he demands will be repaid only in abuse.” The nation witnessed this when Trump’s first Chief of Staff was scorned by the White House Communications Director as a “f***ing paranoid schizophrenic.”
And who can forget Secretary of State Rex Tillerson being blindsided by a Trump Tweet firing him? Months after terminating Tillerson, Trump called him “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” Source: NYT. It’s no wonder that so many of his former staff don’t show “loyalty” after they leave his employment.
Trump shaming people he has fired is especially surprising, given the praise he heaped on them when announcing their appointment. It’s as if he isn’t self-aware enough to understand that he hand-picked these individuals for the job.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: Respect is a two-way street. If you want your staff to be respectful, you need to be respectful as well.
This one should be obvious, but failing to tell the complete truth is toxic for your organization. There are just too many Trump lies to mention each one, but the Washington Post calculated that he had made 29,508 false or misleading claims since his Presidency began. That averages a whopping 21 lies per day!
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: Leaders and managers who lie and make misleading claims lose all credibility among those they are supposed to lead. And it’s impossible to positively lead people when they aren’t sure if you’re telling the truth, telling a lie, or exaggerating the truth.
#5: Refuse to take responsibility
President Harry S. Truman said, “The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.” Truman believed this so strongly, that he actually had a sign on his desk declaring “The Buck Stops Here!”
Trump should have walked into the oval office with a desk sign reading, “Praise Accepted, Blame Deflected.” Whenever things didn’t go well during Trump’s administration, it was always someone else’s fault. Whether the issue was failure to distribute respirators, an incompetent vaccine roll-out, or slipping employment numbers – – – Trump always claimed someone else was responsible.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: We are responsible for everything that happens in our organization. Even when we need to discipline a team member, we must ask ourselves what role we played in the issue. And we must redouble our own efforts to build a better organization.
#6: Seal yourself in an echo chamber
Credible media sources have reported that Donald Trump is living inside an echo chamber. Not just in the media he consumes, but also the people he surrounds himself with. When a leader views disagreement as disloyalty, then advisors with alternate views are silenced or even terminated. Those who are left understand that their survival requires parroting the words of the leader.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: As nonprofit leaders, we should seek diversity of thought and opinion in our management teams, among our board members, and within our informal advisors. We should welcome respectful disagreement in an effort to identify the best path forward.
#7: Fear appearing weak
Trump is a weak man’s vision of a strong man.
When I googled the phrase “Trump fears looking weak,” the pages were filled with a slew of pertinent articles. Out of all the articles, this one sentence from David Ignatius of the Washington Post Writers Group stands out: “When Trump is on the verge of doing something conciliatory — apologizing for a racist or sexist comment, for example — he stops himself for fear that it will show weakness.”
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: Being afraid of looking weak holds us back as leaders. We are unwilling to find compromise, unable to apologize when we are wrong, and unprepared for building authentic relationships at work.
#8: Allow unethical behavior
Even before being elected in 2016, Trump claimed that he could engage in unethical behavior without consequences. During his first campaign, we heard him brag about molesting a woman, asking a foreign power to interfere in the election, and claiming that he could shoot people in NYC without any consequences. This culminated four years later on January 6 when he told a crowd, “…you’re allowed to go by very different rules”. Source: NYT.
Unethical behavior didn’t stop with Trump. According to National Public Radio’s Marketplace, more than half of Trump’s Cabinet had engaged in unethical or questionable behavior by 2018. Instead of “draining the swamp,” Trump expanded and restocked the swamp with more alligators, more quicksand, and a pandemic of ethical malaria.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: We must demonstrate the highest ethical standards through our actions, and we must demand the same of all our teams. Condoning unethical behavior results in organization-wide deviant behavior.
#9: Create a cult of personality
In the 2020 election, the Republican National Committee didn’t produce a new platform (breaking a 150-year tradition of having a new platform for each presidential election). They merely reaffirmed their 2016 platform and enthusiastically supported the president’s “core priorities.” Source: NYT. At that very point, it became clear that Trump was the Republican Party. If Trump changed his mind about a position, the GOP would, too. In this deal with a devil they knew, the Republicans enjoyed conservative judicial appointments and tax cuts.
Republicans have just begun to feel an electoral impact from joining the cult. They have not only lost the White House but lost two Georgia Senate races by wide margins. Georgia, which had been a solid-red state for decades, was cracked into shades of red, blue, and purple.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: Personality cults are especially common among founder directors and chief executives enjoying long and successful tenures. Their boards are less likely to set the strategic direction, looking instead to their executive director to make these important governance decisions. As leaders, we must fully engage our boards and our staff team so that the organization thrives beyond our tenure.
#10: Make short-sighted decisions
Whether halting funds for the World Health Organization or abandoning our Kurdish allies in Syria, Trump has made a lot of short-sighted decisions. They make him feel good for a brief period but have long-term painful consequences for millions.
Lesson for nonprofit leaders: We must consider the impact our decisions will have in 5 years or 10 years. Will you, your team, and those your organization serves look back in 10 years and still view this is a good decision?
As you read through these toxic traits, it’s important to realize that we’ve all engaged in toxic behavior at some point during our career. It’s easy to look at a seriously flawed leader and outline everything they’ve done wrong. But it’s a lot harder for us to practice self-awareness and know when our behavior isn’t productive.
It’s human nature to rationalize our own bad behavior while being unforgiving of others. So, as we move into this next year, let’s all work hard to recognize and remove these traits in ourselves. None of us want to be like Trump.
Why am I writing about this?
In my work with boards, organizations in transition, and coaching executives, I spend a lot of time thinking about leadership in the nonprofit sector. Over the past four years, I’ve also spent more time than I should reading the Washington Post, New York Times, and Atlanta Journal Constitution – often feeling disappointed or outraged at our national leadership. Within a few days after the January 6 riot, this blog post crystalized for me, and I felt a strong need to write it for you.
Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful: