Eight Leadership Lessons I’ve Learned from Trump

It was Inauguration Day, and my college marching band filled enough buses to cover what seemed like a mile of I-95 as we traveled from Chapel Hill to Washington DC. It was 2001, the January after what many of us thought had been the most divisive November we could remember, consisting of nail-biting, chad-counting, and an election so close that friends stopped talking to one another.

In the gap of time between when our buses pulled in to let off the 300+ band members plus staff and when we walked through pre-9/11 security, I remember our band director gathering us together as best he could on that cold, rainy morning. And he shared with us an insight that has stuck with me ever since.

“You represent this school,” he said. “When you are wearing that uniform, people around you who don’t even know you will hear your words, see your actions, and view your school as they view you. You won’t notice them, but they will notice you. They will discover who you represent, and their impression of our school will be easy to tarnish and difficult to get back.”

Three Presidents later, my band director’s words still echo loud and clear—not only pointing to the last few weeks under our current President but also pointing back to me and the beam in my own eye as a leader, a pastor, a Christ-follower.

My leadership also is an ambassadorship, one in which I am called to continuously learn and constantly grow. If there’s something every chapter in life, every moment in history, and every person can offer—from those we choose to those that someone else has chosen—it’s an opportunity to learn something. And though he may not realize it, President Trump is providing lessons for my leadership—and perhaps yours too.

Lesson #1: A leader gives permission without even knowing it

As a leader, you’re in the fishbowl. You may not want to be, you may try to live life as if you are not, but everybody is still watching. From locker room talk to comments stereotyping Muslim people to the way one treats their spouse in public and protects their children, people are watching and taking their cues from President Trump, in all domains. And they will continue to.

When you make lewd comments, you are giving kids permission to make lewd comments. When you visit the family of a Marine who lost his life in combat, you give permission to take time out of one’s schedule to respect the life of someone else. When you tweet a put down of a person or group of people, you are giving people permission to put down a person or group of people.

Jesus knew he was going to be followed day and night by his disciples, and his intent was that they would become more and more like him; a rabbi expected disciples to learn and imitate all aspects of life. As a leader, the comments you say, how you treat people, and the priorities you make rub off on everyone, whether it’s your intent or not. A leader's comments, how they treat people & their priorities rub off on everyone. Click To Tweet

Lesson #2: The pursuit of “looking better than” misses the point

If you’re constantly comparing the crowds you draw, seeking to look more powerful, and degrading your predecessor—even at the cheering of your supporters—you’re missing the point of leadership.

Pastors and Presidents count crowds, fudge numbers, want to brag about who’s following them now. President Trump’s argument over Inauguration crowd size vs. the size of the Women’s March and the size of Obama’s Inauguration was unnecessary.

Seeking to “one-up” someone else, at any cost, reveals more weakness and insecurity than anything else. Jesus arrived on the scene after John the Baptist and even recruited his disciples. But crowds were never compared and antics were never put down. Jesus had a platform that was built off of John’s. Attempts to “look better” actually do the opposite. Seeking to 'one-up' someone else reveals more weakness & insecurity than anything else. Click To Tweet

Lesson #3: Just because you don’t see value doesn’t mean it’s not valuable

We’ve all done it. We’ve thrown out a picture, a piece of furniture, or a book that turned out to be somebody’s sacred cow. It didn’t look valuable to us, didn’t line up with our vision, and so we tossed it. We didn’t take the time to listen to the history, the stories, and the people behind it—all which would have made more sense and made someone else feel valued, even if the item wound up being moved anyway.

President Trump may have missed an incredible opportunity to use his honeymoon season of the Presidency to do some intent listening that would have changed some minds and hearts about him. When Paul traveled and started new churches, he always listened to the unique context of his location, finding value in the philosophy of the Athenians and making tough calls after hearing about the Corinthians. A President, a pastor, a leader can’t assume he or she knows everything. A President, a pastor, a leader can’t assume he or she knows everything. Click To Tweet

Lesson #4: You will make bad calls—but own them

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “The only man who makes no mistake is the man who does nothing.” As a leader, we are going to make bad choices—but usually the last thing I want to do is admit I’ve messed up, forgotten, made a bad choice. I know I’d rather point a finger at someone else. But when I look back to those pastors, coaches, teachers, and bosses I’ve had in my life, the ones I respected the most were the ones who actually made apologies and admitted they were wrong.

An Executive Order that stranded people in airports, marooned doctors, and disrespected even legal residents was not a good call, especially methodologically. But the mess that was created wasn’t owned. Even Peter, Jesus’ right-hand-man, made more than one bad call. Yet, he came to own them.

Lesson #5:  Clarify your generalizations

It’s easy to begin to think in generalizations when you’re leading people. “Everybody wants us to do the event.” “Nobody is coming to help.” “All __________s are a mess.” But generalized thinking leads to generalized acting. Lumping groups of people as terrorists without being in relationship with any of them is a dangerous projection.

Jesus purposely went through Samaritan villages and visited with people who society had written off.

Leaders don’t generalize—they personalize. Leaders don’t generalize—they personalize. Click To Tweet

Lesson #6: Take a bird’s eye view before making a decision

When I look at the messes I’ve been in as a leader and the decisions I’ve regretted, a lot of the grief is rooted in not having taken the time to discover the trickle-down ramifications of my actions.

President Trump’s orders and appointments will trickle down not just through public opinion, but through school systems and international affairs and trust at every level.

As a Christian leader, I can’t just think about me, or even my church. I need to think more broadly about how I am impacting the neighborhood and world around me to bring good news to those who are in need. What’s the bigger picture here? Leaders see the tentacles of every decision.

Lesson #7: Secrecy makes people think you’re hiding something

President Abraham Lincoln is credited with the famous saying: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Denying press coverage, social media presence, and internal communications can’t help but make people question Trump’s motives, even if there is nothing to be concerned about.

If you can’t be transparent, the question is why? In my ministry, there have been times I’ve wanted to do something in secret—or if not in secret, just not tell anyone. But if I’m choosing a “custom” privacy feature on Facebook in order to block some people, if I’m meeting with someone to talk about someone else, if I write an email I wouldn’t want someone else to read or choose to avoid a space or person, I consider these red flags—that perhaps I shouldn’t be doing them in the first place. And if I do choose to proceed, what will happen when what I am doing or saying gets out?

Lesson #8: You could be wrong.

President Trump believes making Executive Order after Order and appointment after appointment are the steps to making America great. And these very well could be what America needs—but they also might not.

My ethics professor in seminary started our first class by sharing she would never tell us what to think in the class, but rather how to think. She desired for us to stand back from making rash judgments and uninformed opinions and to dive deep in our considerations, study, and prayer. She told us to make the best prayerful decision we could, all information considered, but at the end of the day, to humbly admit to ourselves and the world around us “I could be wrong.”

Humans are broken beings—all of us. Leaders included. Humans are broken beings—all of us. Leaders included. Click To Tweet

President Bill Clinton once said: “If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.”

I know I won’t quit.

And I won’t quit learning to lead.

From good leaders. From poor leaders. From presidents. From pastors. And from everyone in between.

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