Donald Trump ran for president touting his outsider status and record as the leader of a vast real estate empire. He promised to apply business expertise to government.
His young administration has now faced several crises, including rising tensions with North Korea, devastating hurricanes, the rise of white supremacists, the worst mass murder in U.S. history, and the failure to carry out a campaign promise to replace the Affordable Care Act.
So how well does executive experience in business translate into success as president?
Richard Ringer, director of the Organizational Leadership Institute at Illinois State University, said traits that may have served Trump well in business are hampering his presidency.
“I think it’s fair to say he looks like a real estate developer who is trying to learn how to become a president, and I don’t know how far along that learning curve he is,” Ringer said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
“Many qualities that work well in business don’t translate into good management practices in government.”
Ringer said running a corporation often requires a different set of skills than heading the federal government.
“If I am a real estate developer (and) have a bank that doesn’t want to lend me money, I can go to a different bank. Well, there is only one U.S. Senate, one House of Representatives. Where else does president go if he can’t find common ground with those other branches of the U.S. government?” Ringer asked.
In government, he added, “Things just don’t happen because (the president) wishes that they would.”
Consistency, predictability and reliability are important factors for managers to practice in business as in government, Ringer said.
“If you are in a management role in an organization, those who work with you and report to you have to have some reasonable expectation that your behavior will be consistent and predictable and reliable over time. What you say is important today is what you said was important yesterday and what you say is important tomorrow,” Ringer said.
With the president, “There is often a lack of consistency over what is important to his administration. Is it tax reform? Is it health care, immigration reform, North Korea?” Ringer asked.
“This is not a commentary on his policies or politics, but on his communication style,” he added. “Until leaders and managers are able to articulate priorities, it is difficult for other members of the organization to have some confidence.”
Fortune magazine recently released a survey of chief financial officers, asking them to describe the Trump administration. Some of words they offered include: chaotic, erratic, unpredictable.
“That is a really difficult place for a manager, a leader to be in,” Ringer said.
Trump is the first U.S. president to go directly to the commander in chief role without any previous elected or government experience, forcing him to trod new territory, Ringer noted.
He said this doesn’t mean no business executive could ever successfully navigate a transition from the private sector to head of the federal government.
He noted that many of the president’s problems in office have been of his own making.
“This is a style he’s developed over years and years and it’s very difficult for people to change,” Ringer said.
The most successful leaders are usually self-reflective individuals, he added. Trump, he noted, seems to lack that ability.
Another issue: Trump’s propensity to pick fights, which violates a cardinal rule of good management.
“Don’t pick battles with people whose help you need. We have so much evidence that effective leaders are able to build successful relationships, including with people they don’t manage,,that they can’t command and control … whether you like the people or not,” Ringer said.
He cited the president's tweets, which often berate others, including members of his own administration.
“I don’t think as a manager that’s always a wise thing to do,” publicly, Ringer said.
“Try to resolve things privately whenever possible," Ringer added. “Always allow people to save face. Never publicly humiliate somebody whose support you will need going forward.”
Ringer said the rocky rollout of the Trump executive orders banning travelers from majority Muslim countries and later prohibiting transgender troops in the military were other examples of management failures.
“Never announce policy decisions before you’ve discussed it with people who have to implement those policies,” he said.
What grade would Ringer give the president if he were a student in one of his management classes?
“Incomplete at this point,” Ringer said. “They certainly have yet to find their footing as an administration and are struggling to figure out what really needs to happen."
But he added, “I think learning to be a good manager is possible for almost all us.”
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