Leadership lessons learned from President Donald Trump

Article originally published by the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 19, 2020.

Four years of the presidency of Donald Trump has provided a treasure trove of lessons on leadership. Some people judge Trump favorably because he fulfilled some of his campaign promises. I go beyond these and consider more fundamental areas where he has fallen short – Trump’s leadership traits, character and values. 

I have years of experience as a leader, five years as a CEO and as a director on numerous boards, working for and observing both great and not-so-great leaders. This has provided me with a framework for identifying key traits of effective leaders who stand out above the crowd, and leaders who you never want to emulate.

So, what are some key traits of an effective leader beyond just achieving results?

Keeps their employees and those they serve safe

This is a prime responsibility of every leader. Trump and many of his senior advisors and administrative staff as well as the White House domestic staff have become infected with Covid-19 because he has ignored the safety precautions of the infectious disease experts. He continues to host super-spreader events. He just doesn’t care.

Trump has not kept the American people safe. As of this writing, 7.8 million people have been infected with Covid-19 and 215,000 people have died and the numbers continue to increase. To put this into perspective, coronavirus fatalities are now at 74% of the 292,000 combat fatalities during WWII. 

The impact on the economy has been severe. Many laid off people have lost their health insurance in the midst of the pandemic. Tens of thousands of illnesses and deaths across the country would have been avoided if Trump had publicly endorsed the wearing of masks and social distancing practices, rather than making light of Covid-19 and calling it a hoax early on, thereby downplaying the pandemic.

Creates a sense of unity

All effective leaders work to align those they lead toward common goals. In his victory speech after he won the election, Trump stated, “I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.”

Trump has failed in his pledge and has done the opposite. Our country has never been so divided in recent memory, and he continues to divide us.

Possesses emotional intelligence

The Cambridge Dictionary defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems,” a key attribute of all effective leaders. Based on my own experience, I have a more expansive definition. 

An emotionally intelligent leader:

  • Understands the brutal facts of reality
  • Surrounds himself with people who will speak the unvarnished truth, and not sugar-coat reality to play to their ego
  • Doesn’t continually make false and misleading statements, expecting people to believe them
  • Recognizes the unintended consequences of words and actions
  • Doesn’t endanger people to satisfy their own agenda
  • Hires qualified people who possess ethics and integrity
  • Listens to scientific experts and doesn’t undermine nor publicly criticize them
  • Doesn’t bully and threaten to get what they want, not realizing people have long memories
  • Admits when they are wrong
  • Takes the blame when it’s their fault and gives credit where credit is due
  • Doesn’t undermine their relationships with allies, but builds coalitions 
  • Doesn’t self-aggrandize and understands it’s not about them, but about those they lead and serve

I will let my readers judge Trump against the above definition.

Values their credibility

As a former CEO, I valued my credibility not only with my employees and board of directors, but everyone I dealt with. Credibility increases one’s ability to be heard and be taken seriously, to debate points and make strong arguments. Without credibility, there is no trust and without trust, it is very difficult to lead.

Trump has lost his credibility with many Americans, and therefore he has lost their trust. One’s credibility is based on their reputation for being honest. Damaging your reputation will damage your credibility, regardless of the issue.

Shows empathy

Earlier this year, all of us saw videos of George Floyd’s death while in police custody and police officers taking aggressive action against people protesting racial injustice. I also watched police officers showing empathy and treating protestors with respect, and watched police officers salute Floyd’s coffin at his funeral. 

I look forward to the day when Black parents do not have to give “the talk” to their children on how to remain safe during an encounter with a law enforcement officer. I look forward to the day when my Black friends and colleagues will not feel some trepidation if they are stopped by a police officer for a traffic offense. As the nation’s leader, Trump should have recognized these real concerns of the Black community and acknowledged that change is needed. That’s what an effective leader would have done.

The gold standard of leadership are CEOs of public companies and how their independent boards hold their CEOs accountable for not only results, but their leadership traits, character and values. Trump would not last long as the CEO of a public company with an independent board of directors. He wouldn’t even be hired.

As a leader, be sure you have the right values. This is the trait that separates leaders who we want to emulate and those we don’t.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at

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