What Trump and Biden can teach us about leadership styles

Comparing Donald Trump’s leadership with US President Joe Biden’s offers intriguing insights when seen through the eyes of one of Australia’s top business educators.

Like him or loathe him, even the defeated president’s authoritarian and sometimes narcissistic leadership style has some potential value, despite the need for successful business leaders to more commonly rely on influence, connection and the engagement of others.

An authoritarian or directive style can be useful to focus attention and resources, and fix things as quickly as possible in an extreme crisis. But it only works in the short term. With complex challenges and wicked problems, the right response is not one of rigid “command” as preferred by Trump, but one of a more relational leadership style, like Biden’s.

Professor Richard Hall, Deputy Dean Leadership and Executive Education at Monash Business School, says it’s about adopting the right mindset in the right circumstance.

Professor Hall sees a key difference between the two styles as “transactional versus transformational”. The former is based on an exchange where the “faithful” are rewarded and uses power to wield fear and division. The latter offers empathy and hope.

“Trump paved the way – recognising this populous impulse and, in some ways, Biden has tapped into that”

“With Biden it’s all about the people and the process,” Professor Hall says. “With Trump it was all about ‘the deal’ in which there are only winners and losers. Trump was very leader-centric, uncompromising and self-oriented. There’s a fair bit of narcissism there.

“That’s a very different approach than Biden’s. It was illustrated in his inauguration speech when he said: ‘Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another’.”

Professor Hall also sees lessons in Trump’s capacity to read the frustration and discontent of vast numbers of Americans who had not seen the benefits of globalisation and economic growth, and their desire for something radically different.

“Trump paved the way – recognising this populous impulse and, in some ways, Biden has tapped into that, but he sees it being done by the state rather than leaving it to the market,” he says. “You can see that with the magnitude of his $US1.9 trillion ($2.4 trillion) Pandemic Relief Bill.

“It’s an enormous expenditure that is really focused on the electorate that Trump tapped into: low-wage workers, the poor, the marginalised, the unemployed and families.”

Professor Richard Hall

In terms of business leadership in Australia, Professor Hall warns senior executives who envisage themselves becoming successful leaders in sole charge of large corporations that they are dreaming of the impossible, because no individual can grasp all the data, all of the insights and all the understanding required.

“That means leaders have to operate in a very different way,” he says. “They have to create organisations that are much more nimble, agile, flexible and able to change and innovate under very volatile conditions. To do that you can’t have a set-and-forget linear and predictable growth strategy.

“It’s about creating conditions in which teams of people can learn faster and be more flexible, innovative and creative. The future belongs to those organisations that can quickly see what needs changing, innovate, adapt and seize on new opportunities.

“Look at IBM. They used to make computers, now they’re a business services and consulting company. Organisations that have survived are very often those that have been able to completely transform themselves.

“You need boundary scanners out there looking for trends and bringing ideas back into the organisation. You also need forms of communication within your organisation that allow your entrepreneurial sub-system to affect your operational sub-system.”

Monash doesn’t simply teach future leaders a list of particular behaviours or competencies, Professor Hall says. “We aim to develop certain mindsets and orientations that show leaders how to build resilient companies that adapt and innovate to succeed and grow into the future.”

Monash Business School offers a Master of Management, Master of Global Business, MBA/Global Executive MBA, Executive Education and a range of other leadership programs.

This article was originally published on AFR.COM