No matter how much chaos and disruption U.S. President Donald Trump causes — to trade, business and even America’s core alliances — his supporters regularly insist that Trump is a leader who gets things done. While Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton regards Trump as an “active, engaged and effective leader,” former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich has gone so far as to describe Trump as “stunningly effective.”
Given these accolades, I was curious about what the undergraduates in my course on leadership theory and practice think of Trump’s effectiveness, so I organized a student debate.
One side was tasked with defending the motion that Trump is an “effective leader.” They portrayed him as a decisive go-getter and marveled at his “chutzpah” in moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Among Trump’s accomplishments, they pointed to the tax-reform legislation that he signed in December 2017, the airstrikes against Syrian chemical-weapons facilities in April 2018, the recent engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the evolution of trade policy toward China.
The team arguing against the motion focused on the personal attributes usually associated with effective leaders: a moral compass, balanced reasoning and a disciplined and principled approach to decision-making. Needless to say, they emphasized that Trump comes up short on all counts.
In the end, the debate boiled down to the question of whether effective leadership is about action and intention, character or both. For example, at one point, a debater arguing for the motion was asked whether morality, trust and integrity are relevant to effective leadership. “No,” he answered. Effectiveness is morally neutral: If you announce your goals and then achieve them, you are effective, whatever the goals happen to be. It’s a short hop from here, of course, to Machiavelli, and then to contemporary strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim.
One source of conflict in the debate was over the timeframe for determining leadership effectiveness. The word “effectiveness” often implies immediate actions and results. Yet “leadership” suggests a capacity to deliver principled decisions and durable outcomes over the long term, usually through a robust process grounded in facts and informed by ethics.
Another area of disagreement, expressed vividly in the aforementioned debater’s one-word answer, is that morality and decisive action run on separate tracks. In other words, a leader’s morals can be regarded as “private,” with no real-world relevance.
Missing from the discussion was the fact that corrupt motives — such as self-aggrandizement, contempt for others and indifference to the public good — produce corrupt results. Policies that seem effective in the short term can end in spectacular failure when they are driven primarily by a leader’s self-interest and pursuit of power.
Many U.S. presidents have become embroiled in scandals of their own making. Andrew Jackson had his genocidal “Trail of Tears,” which entailed the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee and other Indian tribes from the southeastern U.S. Warren G. Harding had the Teapot Dome scandal. And, of course, Richard Nixon had Watergate. All of these presidents’ legacies were tarnished not by any single act — which might very well have looked “effective” at the time — but by habits of corruption and a disregard for ethical guidelines.
Trump bears some resemblance to these ignoble examples. In his rush to enrich himself and consolidate power, while abandoning all civility and decorum, he has shown contempt for the separation of powers, the freedom of the press, the norms of governance and the rule of law. And, as with his predecessors, his administration will probably be remembered more for its scandals and mistakes than for its achievements, especially over the long run.
“Over the long run” is a necessary proviso, because only time can deliver the final judgment. Jimmy Carter is often remembered as a mediocre president. But a new book by Stuart E. Eizenstat, “President Carter: The White House Years,” shows that the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between China and the United States probably owes as much to Carter as to Nixon, despite the latter’s historic visit there in 1972.
Or consider George W. Bush, who famously stood in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner early in the Iraq War, and praised the inexperienced and incompetent director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for doing a “heck of a job” just after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. In both instances, the long run arrived rather quickly to render judgment on sheer folly.
As for Trump, it remains to be seen if his tax cuts and trade wars will save the middle class. His dealmaking with North Korea and his “no deal” with Iran may or may not end badly. But both history and leadership theory suggest that his lack of emotional intelligence, preoccupation with showmanship and indifference to facts will lead to unambiguous failures.
Interestingly, when my students were asked which team had delivered the more convincing arguments, they overwhelmingly voted for the affirmative team, even though 90 percent expressed personal skepticism about Trump’s ultimate effectiveness. Therein lies an important lesson: The glare of the daily news cycle can make us lose sight of the essential role of moral leadership in sustaining the U.S. in the years to come. Without it, the “successes” of today can easily become the disasters of tomorrow.
Scott Cowen is president emeritus of Tulane University, where he teaches an undergraduate course on leadership, and the author of “Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education.” © Project Syndicate, 2018 www.project-syndicate.org