What Trump Has Shown Us About Leadership (Continued).

Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Whatever is wrong with Donald Trump is getting worse. A week ago, it seemed noteworthy that he was canceling a long-planned state visit because an allied government didn’t want to let him “buy Greenland.”

Now: proposals to stop hurricanes with nuclear bombs; turning a G-7 news conference into a late-night cable infomercial for Trump’s own badly struggling golf resort;  “imaginary-friend” discussions with Chinese leaders that the Chinese say never occurred; orders that his officials “build the wall!” with a promise to pardon them for any laws they break in the process; and general megalomania and craziness.

Last week I argued (in “If Trump Were an Airline Pilot”) that if Trump occupied any other important position in public life, responsible figures would already have removed him from the controls. In this case the “responsible figures” are the Vichy Republicans who control the U.S. Senate, which is why nothing has happened to rein Trump in. Not one of these senators will stand up to Trump, even as he is melting down.

A few days ago, readers with military, corporate, and other backgrounds responded to the proposition that a person like Trump would already have been screened out by corporate, military, medical, or other professional systems. Here’s another round in response to that.

CEOs are worse than you think: In the previous post I quoted a reader who said that a man like Trump was par for the course in big public corporations. (“Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”) I said, in response, that it would be good to have a few more examples—apart, say, from Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who was able to con much of the financial and scientific world for a long time.

This reader wrote back to say: You want examples? I’ve got examples! Here is an abridged version of his reply:

I read your challenge regarding examples of CEOs who have destroyed the company and were not fired by the board for whatever reason in the face of incompetence. First, of course, scholarship:

1. Book that discusses this very same phenomenon, as CEOs are chosen for their 'charisma' vs. experience and competence. Searching for a Corporate Savior, The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs  (Rakesh Khurana, Princeton, 2002). In this book there is a discussion about the parameters that boards tend to use for choosing CEOs in the US. I think you'll find some of your examples there.

2. Examples of incompetent CEOs who destroyed or helped destroy their companies after being put on the job. Don't take my word for it, try this list of “15 Worst CEOs in American History.” The criteria of the list:

“Those selected for the list fall into one of two simple categories - those who ruined the companies completely while they served as sitting CEOs and those who did severe damage from which their firms could never possibly recover.”...

3. Want more current examples. Sure: Take a look at “Worst CEOs of 2018.” ...

We can talk about incompetence in another sense: Are they building a company that works for the world at large, or are they building a company to feed their egos?

You may say, it doesn't matter if they do, what matters is the result. However, I think you'll find that, if we begin to discuss the ethics of owning and managing a business, you quickly get to the 'responsibility' moment, where your responsibility is to your employees, your environment, your country, and your shareholders. In that order.

The idea that shareholders must always come first has always been ridiculous and only a small mind and small heart could accept that (cue the usual Republican assessments - take your examples from people like Mitch McConnell, a man who does not understand what made the US great and only cares about getting what he wants or what he thinks he wanted when he was 30 years younger.) Take your example as Bezos. Once you have made more money than God, what's the point of not paying your employees a living wage?...

Hope you are not counting on the genius of American Business leadership to save the country from its own present course.

To reassure the reader on the final point, I’m not looking for a CEO savior. (The main theme of the recent work that I’ve been doing with my wife, Deb Fallows, is that communities need to be their own saviors.) My point was simply: Corporate oversight, however flawed, has seemed to be more effective than what we’re getting at the moment out of the U.S. Senate.

Which leads me to …

Actually, CEOs are way better than you think! A reader whom I’ve known for a long time, and whose work involves corporate governance and CEO-search processes, agrees with the original point, and disagrees with the reader above.

My friend writes:

I’d like to offer a response to the response you received [from the reader quoted above] regarding CEO’s of public companies and the Board’s judgement on their fitness to serve (“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power.”)...

The responder’s comments are contrary to my personal experience.  For more two decades I was a Senior Partner and the Co-Leader of the [particular business area] Practice at one of the top four international retained executive search firms. My search practice was exclusively focused on C-level executive positions, not infrequently searches for CEO replacement.  In a majority of my executive searches, my client was the Board of Directors.

While the typical CEO search engagement was initiated to replace the planned retirement, often a year or more in advance, I can think of at least half a dozen searches to replace CEOs whose behavior was not only harmful to the business interests of the enterprise, but also offensive to the values of the company.

These were cases of Trump-like behavior.  This could be a painful process for the Board, particularly when the CEO was also a Founder who had overseen the selection of Board Directors over the course of many years.

I can think of four examples of CEO behavior so egregious that the Board recognized its fiduciary duty to shareholders to dismiss and the replace the CEO.  While I won’t name the companies involved, I will say that all were Fortune 100 corporations, two investor-owned systems, a specialty manufacturer, and one of the largest [insurance-related firms].  These executive searches were conducted in strictest confidence, and only the Board was aware that the CEO was to be replaced.  In contrast to your respondent’s characterization of “the medieval level at which corporate management is done,” it was clear to me and my Search Firm that in these instances the Boards acted firmly, ethically, and in the interest not only of shareholders but also of the corporation’s management and employees.

I will acknowledge that there has been a growing tendency for CEOs to recruit compliant Board Directors and undermine their independence, but I will also observe that based on many years’ experience working very closely with many of the most senior healthcare executives that the best CEOs seek strong and independent Directors on their corporate Boards.  The best CEOs of the most successful large public companies use their Directors as an extension and enhancement of management talent, and they defer to their Directors when making certain critical decisions regarding the values of the enterprise and its strategic direction.

Again, in my experience, an effective Board would not long tolerate capricious leadership, and certainly would not hesitate to act to dismiss a CEO whose personal behavior violated ethical standards, even if the enterprise was doing well.

One final note: your respondent asserts, “Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”  I demur.  With the exception of the occasional Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Ken Lay (Enron), or Rick Scott (Columbia HCA) – essentially Founders as well as CEOs – my personal experience and close acquaintance with a fair number of top tier executives and Board Directors is that it takes exceptional intelligence, leadership talent, and steady judgement to lead an organization as complex as a Fortune 100 corporation.  

While we’re at it, let’s think more carefully about airline pilots: In the first post I used the commercial-pilot world as an example of highly consequential occupations, with checks and safeguards to thin out incompetents. And, yes, I say this in full awareness of the “Right Stuff”/“Top Gun” macho-egotist mentality among a number of pilots, which I’ve seen plenty of examples of during my own humble-private-pilot exploits over the years.

This reader writes:

You might want to stop using airline pilots as the standards of professional purity. It was a very good article, but as a 36-year airline pilot and 20-year Naval pilot, I can say that the presumption of purity isn’t warranted.

There are copilots who have had to sign letters agreeing to never bid for an open captain position, pilots transferred to non-flying positions due to the Dilbert Principle, and others on special tracking or who are well known among their constituents.

Like doctors, lawyers, and even clergy, they are the fringe performers from whom the other professionals learn second-hand about proper conduct. After a recent crash, the FAA is now tracking repeated poor performers with previous employers.

The real question about Trump is -

  • why isn’t he a registered sex offender,
  • why hasn’t he had any professional accreditation removed,
  • why hasn’t he been held financially responsible for his financial failures [and on through a long list of similar Trump-related questions, which I am abbreviating.]

I thank the reader for this note, but also think that his pilot-world examples strengthen my original point. The moral from aviation is not that pilots are standards of purity—although as a group, airline pilots (like air traffic controllers) maintain a very high level of professional competence. Rather the point is that the system is designed to shield the flying public from the slackers, rogues, and outliers. That systematic accountability is what we’re missing with Trump.

Let’s get back to the mental issues: In my original piece I explained why I resisted “medicalizing” Trump’s aberrant behavior—that is, trying to name some biological cause, rather than noting the effects. A mental-health professional writes:

I thought your characterization of Trump was dead-on.  A retired [senior military officer] and PhD psychologist, I do have the professional background to validate everything you said….

The last 12 years of my worklife were at [a major public research institution] as a science officer, program official, and faculty member.  Administering research programs you get to know literally hundreds of fellow psychologists and psychiatrists. These are aside from my colleagues while in the military and all across the government including at ... VA, FAA, GAO, and OPM - even the White House.

Not one colleague, when the subject of Trump arose, has ever expressed disagreement with the assertion that Trump is unfit for duty as POTUS.  Not one.  

Something to keep in mind is that professional ethics do not apply in diagnosing somebody like Trump because, thanks to his moth-like attraction to celebrity, he has provided more hours to observe him across numerous settings than is remotely the case when diagnosing a typical patient.

More on medicalization from another mental-health professional:

Back when you were first weighing the advantages and disadvantages of seeing Trump through a medical lens I think I called your attention to an unfortunate problem with the modern “DSM” diagnostic system.

Though the psychiatrists who put the system together relied heavily on the work of psychologist Theodore Millon when they assembled the section on personality disorders, they overruled Millon’s strenuous objection to their insistence that you can’t assign a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) unless the person is literally a criminal.

Three years ago that led to the emergence of a consensus, especially among nonprofessionals, that Trump suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder.

While that at least puts us in the right ballpark, it fails to capture why Trump is so dangerously different from most politicians. Most of them are probably not significantly less narcissistic than most Hollywood celebrities. But, like most Hollywood celebrities, they lack Trump’s signature gratuitous meanness and cruelty - to use one of his favorite words, his nastiness.

A final word on Queeg and ‘Caine’: In the preceding round, a reader disagreed with my suggestion that White House aides closely study Herman Wouk’s famous-in-its-time novel The Caine Mutiny. The reader agreed that the paranoid central figure of the book, Captain Queeg, had important similarities with Donald Trump. But he thought that Wouk’s larger point was different from that of another military-mariner drama, the 1995 movie Crimson Tide.

One more dip into the Captain Queeg well:

I was in 7th or 8th grade when we visited family friends a few states distant; a Captain who made the Navy his career after WW2 unlike my dad, and his wife, who both always kindly engaged with me, having no children of their own.

I looked over their bookshelves after dinner and saw The Caine Mutiny,  opening it with interest maybe expecting cutlasses and buried treasure.  The Captain said "that's a good book!".  I was up late that night, and re-read the book a few times since, making new comparisons with age, and seeing aspects become quite dated.

Queeg seems to be a military example of the Peter Principle, perhaps well competent in peacetime (and convoy duty in early years of war?).  Also, how much of his incompetence by the time of the Caine stems from failings exaggerated by fatigue from serving first… Trump embodies the Peter Principle but if he is fatigued it is from dissipation not service.

Keefer's pose as an expert who thinks he knows better and acts almost sneeringly smarter than most around him, but caves in when confronted, also resembles Trump more than Queeg.  Keefer is summed up by an old editorial quote about instigators vs. participants: "let's you and him fight!"  I always took the greatest lesson from Caine as "don't be a Keefer", with a corollary lesson along the lines of WAIT advice: "why am I talking?" meaning you don't know everything, let others teach or help you.   

Keefer is an obvious caution about remote diagnosis, so we should judge Trump's actions or words (and there are plenty to judge) more than his inferred thoughts.

Maryk was the hero, without pretense or Keith's initial condescension.  Whatever pretense Queeg had came from obvious desperation so he ends up a more sympathetic character than Keefer.

A tidbit I want to re-read for:  when Keith is handed Keefer's piles of un-filed communications, I recall that an NCO (I forget the character's name) shows him "the Navy way" to clean up Keefer's mess.  Keith gets his head around that and does OK after his initial screw-up of radio messages for the first Caine captain.  Since my last reading more than 10 years ago I want to see if I remember this accurately this as a lesson about  "Standard Work" (a Lean approach) from an era before lean manufacturing became an everyday concept.

Thanks to all.