Trumping Character

Image of a Trump "Make America Great Again" sign

As the battle to replace him in the White House raged, U.S. President Barack Obama issued a sadly ironic presidential proclamation. Calling on all Americans to put their best foot forward, he officially named seven days in mid-October as National Character Counts Week. “I call upon public officials, educators, parents, students, and all Americans to observe this week with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”

At the time, of course, Hillary Clinton was expected to succeed Obama, but not because of her character. Americans were expected to elect her as a candidate widely seen as the “lesser of two evils.” But U.S. voters shocked the world by going the other way instead, handing the Oval Office to Donald Trump.

If you just watched Trump’s victory speech, you could easily expect him to do a good job as POTUS. But while a politician’s campaign comments often have little bearing on actions later taken in office, the president-elect didn’t even try to present a socially responsible platform. To win the White House, he strategically convinced targeted voters that America could be made “great again” by throwing national character out the window.

There is no question that Trump is a demagogue who beat Clinton by pandering to the basest of human instincts, which is why shell-shocked CBC commentators were comfortable, at least momentarily, discussing whether or not his victory could be fairly compared with Hitler’s rise to power. The answer to that question is no.

If truth be told, Trump hasn’t really said or done anything that hasn’t been done or said by numerous other world leaders who are not compared to mass murderers. And that list includes some previous U.S. presidents.

But this is supposedly the age of social responsibility. And a Clinton victory would have at least created a world with women leading Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, not to mention the U.S. Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund.  Instead, as New Yorker Editor David Remnick observed, America will soon “bid farewell to the first African-American President — a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit — and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy.”

According to Remnick, it is impossible to react to the election with “anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.” But that isn’t really true. In fact, the really unsettling thing is that millions of Americans welcomed Trump’s victory without any revulsion or anxiety whatsoever.

During the campaign, Trump supporters routinely overlooked the president-elect’s questionable behaviour and personality flaws, arguing that the man’s business skills and commitment are all that is required to successfully lead the most powerful nation on the planet. For example, Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, told CNBC that having a charitable character has little bearing on whether or not someone would make a good president. This line of thinking is wrong.

Being a good head of state requires being a good leader who goes about nation-building in a sustainable and socially responsible way. And this requires more than competencies and commitment. Good leadership requires having what Ivey calls leader character to ensure that competencies are deployed in ethical and effective ways for all stakeholders. Leader character is also what ensures commitment is aimed at selfless goals.

Whether Trump’s supporters see it or not, character in the White House matters more today than ever before, especially if the goal is to make America great. After all, the thing that set America apart in the past was its ability to create wealth while maintaining at least a perceived commitment to religious tolerance, equality and freedom.

I am not arguing that Clinton was an ideal alternative. My point here is that the world already had a serious leadership crisis before Americans went to the polls — and it has just been exacerbated by the U.S. election of an egomaniac known for lying and promoting greed, not to mention making racist remarks, joking about climate change, and groping women.

The pivotal role that character plays in good leadership has been made clear by Ivey Business School research into the causes of the 2008 financial crisis. But as Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts notes in “The Rising Cost of Bad Leadership,” the expensive lessons learned in the aftermath of that crisis already appear forgotten as high-profile cases of appalling corporate behaviour continue to undermine capitalism. And now, the country most responsible for the near-collapse of the global financial system less than a decade ago has just handed the White House to a businessman comfortable with acting in highly appalling ways.

Trump could prove to be a strong president who creates American jobs in the medium term. But the example he has set as a leader is far from presidential and his election does not bode well for people who care about social responsibility and economic sustainability.

8 responses on “Trumping Character

  1. John Settino

    Two things Tom – Hills was not the lesser or two evils – she was the only one qualified for this job and she was the clear alternative. I don’t think I will ever reconcile the election of Trump – today still fighting on Twitter with the NY Times. That is a massive failure on the leadership front – he is incapable of having a dignity attack.


    Lots and lots of bias and prejudice; many suppositions; cherry picking of faults related to character. Both Clinton and Obama have very serious character faults which are worse than what Trump possesses such as supporting the killing of innocent late term fetuses, constant lying, cheating, deceiving, narcissistic elites, etc…… There is a decline of the western civilization and it is being led by the USA. Of all the thousands of potential leaders we end up with two of the worst ………. we are witnessing the dark side of leadership …. so tell the whole story of the type of leadership that is prevalent in the US.

  3. O. Hinds

    This is one of the most progressive and thought provoking commentaries I have read post the US Election. The election result has sent the signal that seriously flawed leadership behavior can be elevated to the highest office without being held accountable. It is truly disturbing to humankind.

    Really, what do we say to our young impressionable children.

  4. Wm demopoulos

    Thank you for adding yet another disappointed voice. “Don’t blame me, i vote hillary” will be the rallying cry of tomorrow. I pity the climate.

  5. John Kerr

    One of our most successful presidents was a renowned groper but he benefited from a strong economy and only a relatively small number of the women groped complained. One did yell rape and one was paid a lot of money to go away but it made little impact on the legacy. Most people missed him, especially on the feminist left. Business schools have little impact on character, which develops at a much younger age. Graduates know the buzz words but that in itself does not make them nice people. Fortunately most people are morally sound and those who are not often find it expedient to be so in business, or at least to appear that way. Unfortunately success in large organizations too often comes to those who worm their way upwards, their noggins bobbing like bubble-heads, with nary a thought to morality.

  6. Perry Lea

    The problem that many in academia have is most of you are liberals and only see your common thought through one prism, you totally disregard other points of view. I recall when liberals were people who wanted to find common ground through discussion. Unfortunately, liberals were the same group of people who called Ronald Reagan a war monger during his 1st and 2nd presidential run. Rather than look at the Trump victory and results as repudiation to the left-wing agenda of the most liberal President in US history, you and your cohorts in the media blame the ill educated and ill informed voter for choosing Donald Trump. And then to compare him with Hitler. OMG, how low can you go? I believe there are good and bad liberals just as their are good and bad conservatives. Unfortunately some people in academia and journalist who spew this vitriol and divide instead of uniting. Why don’t you look at the facts and present them to your readers as they are not what you assume they are or should be. Your article doesn’t provide both sides to allow the reader to decide for themselves. No the liberal methodology “I will tell you what you should know and think”. I agree, they were both pathetic choices for office. The American people deserve better. I would encourage you and others to look at “policy” and not the rhetoric. In four years from now, we will measure President Trump’s record, if he failed to deliver, he should be voted out providing the Democrats have a better message and candidate to deliver. If he doesn’t fail and he does follow through on his policies to make the country great again, “job creation”; “growing economy”. etc. I look forward to reading your article and others writing they had it wrong and the Trump presidency is indeed making America great. However, that is a pipe dream. The left will never admit it. They will write about Trump, any conservative or non-liberal for that matter (not that Trump is a conservative, he’s not) in total disdain as a complete failure. It’s a real shame. I’ve been living in the US for 16 years and have travelled across this great country. This much I have learned, most Americans love their country and want everyone to succeed. Americans are the most generous of any country on earth. Unfortunately the media for rating purposes ($$$) create the divide in this country. They categorize viewers as left and right wing and kowtow to those markets. Academia which is suppose to be a bastion of thought and differing opinions is a cesspool of liberal thought with total disregard to any other thought. Despite all of this the American people got it right. They voted for Trump because they wanted change as President Obama’s policies were not working. Hillary would have been more of the same. They people chose Trump because they had to. They are fed up with politicians who promise and don’t deliver and only care about getting reelected, and playing to the special interests groups. These are a couple of reasons why Trump won.

  7. Saint Them

    You liberals are such hypocrites with your holier than thou attitudes that don’t know first thing about running a business much less a country. Your so called humanitarianism at the expense of the working class. America voted for change 8 years ago and we got corruption and incompetence and 8 years of race baiting. Donald Trump may offend you and quite frankly my dears, “I don’t give a damn”! Most of America is sick of your political correct bullshit and values in America went out when Bill ( sex addict) Clinton and his power hungry wife took office. Your opinion is not worth anything!! You seem to be an academic idiot. More businesses have died under Obama than birthed and jobs left America.

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