Leadership Lessons from a ‘Stable Genius’

The former president, who referred to himself as a ‘stable genius,’ had a distinctive leadership style that offers many lessons.

By Hershey Friedman and Steve Lipman

Anyone who wishes to learn lessons in executive leadership from the performance of U.S. presidents has no lack of resources — do a Google search on that topic and 193,000,000 results show up. On a smaller scale, amazon.com offers 318 books on the subject.

Donald Trump, stable genius, DonkeyHotey
Self-proclaimed “stable genius.” Caricature by DonkeyHotey, flickr.com.

This country’s first 44 Chief Executives, whose legacies vary as much as their accomplishments in office, all had some pluses and minuses to their name, a function of their times, the challenges they faced, and the personalities they brought to the presidency. All of their examples added to the growing field of leadership training.

Though the successful Commanders-in-Chief shared many skills, each was noted for an ability at which he excelled — Washington, for example, for his bravery under fire; Lincoln, for his honesty; Reagan, for his communication skills.

And “The Donald”?

The self-proclaimed “stable genius” also brought a particular executive style to his administration.

The resident of the Oval Office who served in 2017-2021, a one-term president who has declared his intention to seek a second term, operated by a distinctive leadership style that offers many lessons for executives in politics, journalism, business and other fields. Including academia.

Though not a scholar, Trump has — in politics, and in his business life — exhibited a cut-throat management MO that, surprisingly for people not familiar with the Ivory Tower form of administration that characterizes how universities are run, is also common at the highest levels of government.

Henry Kissinger is known for the notorious remark, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” How much more so in the actual political world.

A tendency for academics to see things narrowly, i.e., from the point of view of one’s discipline or profession, is particularly common in politics, where unbending fealty to one’s beliefs and supporters frequently translates into unbridled antagonism to people on the opposite side of the political divide. This tendency was epitomized in the administration of the country’s 45th president.

Current or aspiring leaders in any area can learn much from his style. With an eye on the 2024 election, here — from his presidency, his business career, and his time at “The Apprentice” — are several examples of how to emulate him:

Conquer, then divide. After winning the presidency in 2016, he fanned the flames of division in the United States between Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals vs. conservatives … and other groups that either fanatically supported him or irresolutely opposed him. His “us versus them” language, the Harvard Gazette pointed out, was “unusually polarizing for a politician … elected to govern a nation of 325 million.” Trump, CNN Politics reported, exacerbated long-standing divisions that “contributed to dysfunction in Congress,” but which “had not until recently raised real questions about America’s underlying political stability.” Trump, according to CNN Politics, ended his “tumultuous presidency with the nation confronting the greatest strain to its fundamental cohesion since the Civil War.”

Demand total loyalty … loyalty supersedes experience or expertise. A week after his inauguration, he told the head of the FBI, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” “Throughout his presidency,” Paul Waldman wrote in a Washington Post opinion essay, “Trump was positively obsessed with the possibility of disloyalty. Potential hires were vetted not for experience or competence but for whether they had ever said anything mean about Trump.”

… But don’t return it. Lou Barletta, a former member of Congress, among Trump’s earliest supporters in Pennsylvania, found that Trump supported his opponent in the 2022 Republican primary for governor. “I’m not supporting him” in 2024, Barletta said. “I was one of his most loyal supporters in Congress. But loyalty was only a one-way street.”

Surround yourself with sycophants. “Say nice things [about him] and he’ll like you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a vocal critic-turned fawning supporter said of Trump. During the first meeting of his full Cabinet, the president had everyone in the room praise him. “The flattery,” The Guardian newspaper reported, “continued as each member of his cabinet took turns praising the president.”

Never apologize … An apology is a sign of weakness, an admission that you made a mistake, a concession in a negotiation. “Issuing an apology,” according to CNN Politics, is for Trump “like losing. Trump does not view himself as a loser.” In an appearance on the “Tonight Show” while running for the presidency, he told host Jimmy Fallon that “apologizing is a great thing. But you have to be WRONG … I will absolutely apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I’m ever wrong.”

… and if you have to do it, do it with reservations. After crude, sexually aggressive remarks he had made about women came to light, he excused his behavior with the half-hearted explanation that “this was locker room banter …I apologize if anyone was offended.” Then, he added, “I was wrong and I apologize.” Then, in his speeches and rallies, he resumed his offensive behavior.

Ignore the needs of future generations. During his administration, Trump, in the name of protecting business interests, rolled back nearly 100 environmental protection rules and laws that were designed to provide generations decade in the future with clean water and air. Likewise, he disbanded a global health security team, created by President Obama, his predecessor, which could have dealt quickly with the Covid outbreak

Don’t insist on be consistency When he denounced Ford Motor Company’s intention to build an assembly plant in Mexico, he did not mention that his own clothing brand is manufactured in China.

Wave off any offensive remarks you make with the words “it was a joke.” At various times during his presidency he compared himself to God, suggested that bleach injections could cure coronavirus, floated the idea that he would pardon aides who broke the law to get his border wall built, and stated that Barak Obama was a founder of ISIS. And so on. The White House reaction, respectively: “It was sarcasm. It was joking.” The president, according to an anonymous aide, “was joking.” “THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?” Trump tweeted.

Disrespect people who disagree with you. No one in public life — men and women in politics, including members of his own party, and members of the media — was subject to the insults that the “Don Rickles with a populist political agenda” (the words of National Review) dished out via patronizing nicknames. Examples of this include “Pocahantas” (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren), “Crying Chuck” (Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer), “Sleepy Joe” (President Joseph Biden), “Ron DeSanctimonious” (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis), and “Horseface” (porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom he allegedly had an affair).

Exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate, lie and don’t fact check. He claimed that Covid cases were decreasing, spread misinformation about testing and the efficacy of masks, and inflated the number of flu deaths. He said the country was close to a vaccine, when it was more than a year away. Claiming that he supported protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, while his administration weakened them. His hyperbolic style — about the size of the crowd at his 2017 inauguration, about his wealth, about his TV ratings — are “an innocent form of exaggeration … a very effective form of promotion,” he boasted in his book “The Art of the Deal.” “Nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president,” he liked to brag.

Have no shame. A Time magazine cover with Trump’s likeness was displayed at his golf clubs. Was displayed. The magazine told him to remove the covers — they called his reality TV show “a television smash!” — which were fake.

Bully and embarrass your subordinates. Jeff Sessions, a former Senator who served as Trump’s loyal Attorney General for a year, before being forced to resign, in the end drew the president’s ire for recusing himself from overseeing the independent counsel’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election, and “bore the brunt” of an “upbraiding” from POTUS 25, CNN reported. “Outbursts at his most loyal underlings [became] commonplace,” according to CNN. Other targets included his Treasury Secretary and Chief of Staff. “Multiple men of distinction … say the dressings-down — are the most demeaning they’ve endured in their adult lives.”

Ignore the consequences of your actions on co-workers and employees. In a text message following Trump’s incendiary remarks before the Jan. 6, 2021 violence by his supporters in the U.S. Capital, White House aide Hope Hicks wrote that “In one day he ended every future opportunity that doesn’t include speaking engagements at the local Proud Boys chapter. All of us that didn’t have jobs lined up will be permanently unemployed. This made us all unemployable.”

Brag and claim knowledge about stuff you know nothing about. Trump routinely rejected advice from his Cabinet members and other advisors, because “nobody knows more than me” about, among others, the following subjects: construction, the Federal Reserve, drones, technology, ISIS, taxes, nuclear arms, campaign finance, the visa system, the court system, the US government system, TV ratings, renewable energy, hurricanes, infrastructure, military strategy, money and social media.

Use your fame/riches to get away with “anything.” In his most famous instance of braggadocio, Trump, a decade before he was elected president, told TV host Billy Bush that “when you’re a star,” women let him take liberties with them. “You can do anything … garb ‘em by the p****. You can do anything.”

Intimidate via threats. When it looked likely that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would challenge him for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, Trump said the governor “would be making a mistake.” Added Trump, “If he did run, I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering.”

Blame others for your failures … Like the “Deep State.” Or Dr. Mehmet Oz, his handpicked — and unsuccessful — candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who in Trump’s opinion insufficiently supported many Trump-endorsed candidates in the 2022 mid-term elections. Referring to that election, Trump said in an interview, “I think if they win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.”

… especially the media. “This administration has done a great job,” he would say, “but the press is very dishonest.” “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he tweeted.

Don’t know your own limitations. After he was elected president in 2016, Trump had a phone conversation with Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor. Bloomberg, a fellow businessman-turned-politician, offered the president-elect some advice: “Hire people smarter than you.” Said Trump, “There aren’t any.”

Pretend that you have religious beliefs. Asserting a strong Christian identity while not living a lifestyle that reflected personal piety and reportedly mocking evangelical leaders and voters behind their backs, Trump made a political bond with conservative members of the Christian and Jewish faiths. To make a public display of his religious fealty, during the racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, he arranged to be photographed holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, near the White House, an act that required the tear-gassing of peaceful protestors.

Debase the language. According to frequent media reports, Trump, as president, in public and as well as in private, peppered his speech with cuss words. More than previous presidents, who had maintained a public image of a clean-talking leader. In one speech, he warned that “If you don’t support me, you’re going to be so goddamn poor.” At a rally, he declared that Democrats are “pursuing an illegal, invalid and unconstitutional bullshit impeachment.” When football players knelt during the playing of the national anthem, Trump asked at a rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.’” After he insulted some Third World countries, The Week reported, “Thanks to him, you can now read ‘shithole’ in The New York Times.”

Don’t think before you speak. Impulsivity beats preparation.

Punish your enemies (i.e., your opponents) … Angry that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a member of the White House’s National Security Council, had testified before the House impeachment committee about a conversation involving administration representatives he had overheard that “undermined national security,” Trump had the veteran unceremoniously escorted from the White House grounds. Seeing that he had no future in the Army, after 21 years in the service, Vindman resigned.

…Then gloat about it. Before he became president, he bragged in his speeches about, according to Mother Jones magazine, “his affection for retribution.” His philosophy: revenge would make people cower before criticizing him. A lesson, which he had not learned in business school, he told an audience in Australia, was “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard.”

Appeal to people’s lowest instincts. Trump, reported the Vox news site, “sympathizes with the bigoted attitudes of the crowds he whips up, [and] plays to his base’s darkest instincts.” An article in Time, headlined “A Leader Should Appeal to Their People’s Best Instincts. Donald Trump Appeals to the Worst,” stated that he “has no compelling interest in leading what the founders [of the nation] thought of as ‘the whole people.”

Don’t study history. Before visiting Pearl Harbor for a private tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, which honors the memory of 1,177 U.S. service members who died in the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, Trump asked Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, “Hey, John, what’s this all about?” At the grave of Lt. Robert Kelly, John Kelly’s son, who had died fighting in Afghanistan, Trump asked, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them [soldiers]?” At a World War I cemetery in France, he asked aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?” He frequently cited his “America First” philosophy, unaware of the phrase’s discredited isolationist, anti-immigrant meaning in the 20th Century.

Use the government as your personal battering ram … During his presidency, Trump urged the FBI — publicly — to investigate more than two dozen people he perceived as opponents, including Democratic politicians, prosecutors, and officials of the FBI itself.

… and as your personal ATM. Trump the president did not separate his activities from Trump the businessman. Secret Service workers and other government employees who accompanied the Trumps around the world were forced to stay at Trunp resorts, at taxpayer expense. The president, Politico reported, “promoted his properties dozens of times while in office, mentioning them in official remarks … and in his tweets to his more than 60 million followers.” He planned to hold the 2020 G-7 world leaders’ summit “at his financially struggling Trump Doral Miami resort,” from which he would reap financial benefits from the sudden income, but “reversed course,” according to Politico, “after days of intense scrutiny from Democrats and Republicans.”

Pay no attention to precedent. Beyond refusing to accept his 2020 re-election defeat or to attend the inauguration of Joe Biden? As candidate, he did not release his income tax returns, as all candidates in recent decades had done, and he discontinued Obama’s policy of releasing White House visitor logs.

Make unreasonable demands. He dangled a prestigious White House visit before Volodymyr Zelenskiy, if the Ukrainian president would investigate Hunter Biden, opponent Joe Biden’s son. He called on China to “start an investigation into the Bidens.” He pressured military officials to conduct an expensive military parade in Washington, which would burnish the president’s macho image. During a controversy over questionable emails sent by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said, in a radio address, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

Ask people to break the law or resort to violence. At a rally, he told his security team to “knock the crap” out of protestors. “I will pay for the legal fee.” In discussing demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, Trump asked, “Can’t you just shoot them?” Addressing law enforcement officers on Long Island about people being arrested, he advised, “Please don’t be too nice.” At an election rally, he indicated support for waterboarding, a banned interrogation method. “It’s great,” he said, “but we don’t go far enough.” If elected, he said, he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

When lacking evidence, claim that “everybody knows.” Criticized for urging Vice President Mike Pence to interfere in the election of Joe Biden, Trump said he took that action to “ensure an honest vote. I was right and everyone knows it.” Negative coverage by The New York Times and Washington Post? “I was a victim and everyone knows it.”

Emulate the worst role models. He frequently praised autocratic leaders who were in power in foreign countries. The former presidents he most admired? Racist Andrew Jackson and Watergate-disgraced Richard Nixon. An advisor and business associate was the late attorney Roy Cohn, who had served as a prosecutor in the 1951 Rosenberg spy trial, and later earned a reputation as a cut-throat operator, working as a fixer for Mafia dons, He was disbarred in New York State before dying in 1986. Seeking someone with similar traits, Trump was overheard asking, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

Endorse nepotism. On his reality show, Trump fired Carolyn Kepcher, who served on the program’s panel of judges (he reportedly was jealous of her growing fame) and replaced her with his daughter, Ivanka. (Kepcher was also fired from her job as a top executive of Trump Golf Properties.) Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, neither of whom had any political training, played important roles in the Trump White House, Ivanka as “advisor to the President,” Kushner as “senior advisor to the President.” Neither fully divested from their business interests, and both used their access to the President, according to NBC News, to make hundreds of millions of dollars during those four years and leave “a trail of ethical breaches in their wake.”

Many institutions of higher learning, and other hierarchal organizations, have already learned much from these lapsed leadership principles. Particularly universities — the amount of money wasted on administrative bloat there is disgraceful. Anti-Semitism is back with a vengeance at many schools.

Students can expect to spend four years in college and learn nothing about critical thinking. Sound familiar?

This “education” is probably better than what one might have learned at Trump University, but not much!

How effective was the behavior of 45? It got him elected in 2016. And failed to re-elect him in 2020. The quality of his performance in office is subject to individual opinion. Will his post-presidency behavior earn him a second term? It is too early to tell.

But his leadership style is an open book, a matter of public record — lessons one could have learned at Trump University

There are precedents for Trump’s leadership style; he is following in the footsteps of autocratic, blustering men who led Germany and Italy and Russia during World War II.

And everyone knows how their regimes — and their reputations — ended up.

At least anyone who knows his history does. Which means that the 45th president of the United States probably doesn’t.

Hershey Friedman is professor of business at Brooklyn College. Steve Lipman was a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week in 1983-2020.