It is an almost binary divide, on the one hand the loyal, even fanatical followers on the other a mystified and increasingly concerned rest of society. Of course it is not just Trump, there have been many examples of popular demagogues throughout history.
What is so puzzling, to the concerned opposers, is why would anyone follow someone who is so obviously self-serving and so clearly harmful to others.
Many people have attempted to answer this question and particularly as the Trump campaign has gathered pace. So it is with some trepidation that I add to that canon, but I do think there could be another dimension to this.
Adulthood is challenging and often confusing, the simple answers and apparent certainties are gone. As adults we have to navigate the complexities of the world. As children most of us are insulated from these complexities by our parents. Ambiguities are hidden from us or broken down into simplistic choices and certainties.
So it is understandable that there is a childish part of all of us that is attracted to simple certainties and simplistic apparent solutions to complexities we would rather not face. We want a parent to take these unpleasantnesses away for us, make things better, tell us it is all someone else fault and that everything will be alright.
This is the appeal of the simplistic end of the mainstream media. This is the appeal of the politics of blame and finger pointing. And this is the vulnerability that demagogues tap into, they tap into our inner child and exploit it ruthlessly for their own purposes.
Our individual challenge is to realise that life is full of complexity and to be wary of anyone peddling simple solutions to anything. We have to be willing to grow up and think through things for ourselves, willing to engage our system 2 brain, look at the evidence, debate and work out our own point of view.
In my previous blog I described four different types of leader – the Manager, the Authentic, the Boss and the Ruler. As my business partner, Mark Thompson, pointed out, I missed one out, the Visionary. Like Rulers, Visionaries are relatively rare. Visionaries see themselves in service of a bigger picture, responsible for and driven by some significant cause. Visionaries are uncompromisingly authentic and as a result may have less patience with those who are not as committed to the vision. They will blend their styles in service to the cause, but like authentics they create a culture which empowers others in a meritocratic way because they see the benefits in attracting support as opposed to control. Visionaries recognise the need for power in order make effective change, and will use it, although they tend to use their power with others rather than over them. Visionaries transform whole systems including societies.
It is “Rulers” (like Trump) and “Visionaries” who are most likely to take advantage of our need for simple solutions. Trump with his wall on the one hand and Musk with his cars and batteries on the other. The difference is in the consequences; Rulers largely steal from the future, where Visionaries largely enrich the future.
So how do we, who create leaders by our choices in who we follow, ensure that we choose Visionaries more often and Rulers less often? How do we overcome our anxious inner child and face up to the realties of life’s complexity rather than hiding from them behind the next convenient demagogue?
1 – Don’t be bought off with sweeties – like parents Rulers know that many of us can be “bought” with treats or the promise of treats. We need to realise that the price of these treats can be very high, perhaps not for us, but for someone.
2 – Look for compassion – Typically the someone paying the price for our treats will be an “out group” or a group with little political clout, like workers, migrants or our children. Scrutinise leadership candidates for signs of compassion, if there are none, be wary.
3 – Standing for something – Authentic leaders and Visionaries have a long and usually outspoken track record of things they stand for (or against), Rulers are much more opportunistic and are likely to either be equivocal or even contradictory.
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