Donald Trump continues to perplex the national media and the collective whole of reasonable Americans with his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination. In the wake of his failure to disavow the support of white supremacist groups and violence at his rallies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere, it begs a few questions: Is this really what leadership looks like to some Americans? What’s going on here? Is this the backlash of a middle class who feel genuinely disenfranchised? The recent and alarming rise of xenophobia and frantic nationalism left by the vacuum of leadership from the Republican establishment seems only to be growing. Are we willing to face the consequences of allowing “mean” to define leadership and success in both the private and public sectors? Do we clearly understand the vision and goals of the man who’s bullying his way through our political system in his quest to become our commander in chief? Sadly, the underlying irony may lie in the fact that even his most fervent followers could not explain how we will “Make America great again” in a cohesive, singular vision with realistic and reasonable goals. The reason Trump is eliciting a response is both deeper and more subtle.
The Monster We Know
In the tumultuous 1960s, Hannah Arendt caused national outrage by suggesting that some of the greatest evil the world had ever known boiled down to a Nazi war criminal’s inability to think for himself. Over fifty years later, we are in another time of political and economic upheaval, searching for original thinkers, visionaries, heroes to show us the way. With America preparing to hire its next CEO, we are telegraphing daily to the world our collective values surrounding leadership, power, and the price of success. At the very least, no one would disagree that Donald Trump represents “the ugly American” in its illogical extreme, that boorish, gun-toting, face-punching, self-entitled, narcissistic loudmouth. Is this really who we want to be on the world stage?
We are at a pivotal crossroads: If we blindly follow in the footsteps of mean, that culture will come to define us, crippling our creativity, warping the next generation, and producing demagogues instead of leaders. When these leaders stoke the fears and underlying prejudices of an already angry electorate, the consequences become very real.
Bringing Civility Back
All’s not lost. Accountability, authenticity, relationships, true empathy, and the power of social capital can move us toward a better and brighter future. We as a nation can be both strong and compassionate, both to our fellow Americans as well as our fellow world citizens. Just because the outrageous behavior of characters like Trump takes up all the air in the room, we mustn’t accept his ways as the norm, or believe there is no further “air” to breathe. By owning our actions, clearly communicating alternative scenarios, and cultivating honest, authentic interactions, we begin to reject the cult of personality that rewards poor behavior.
They don’t make the news as often, but they’re there, the nice guys who finish far from last. What does authentic leadership look and feel like in action? Perhaps it’s Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister who publicly demanded a gender-equal cabinet simply “because it’s 2015.” Or Mauricio Macri, the wealthy businessman-turned-president of Argentina who plans to decrease inflation, debt, and the international isolation that has stunted the country for decades. Can we shift our popular and workplace culture to celebrate the true leaders among us? How do we want to define leadership for the generations to follow? What does being an American success really mean?
Regardless of political leanings, we all share the responsibility to own this personal change. It starts now, and it starts with us.