In my book written years ago, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, I made a distinction that to this day I find useful. I defined good/bad leadership along two different axes.
The first was along a spectrum that ran from ethical to unethical. The second was along a spectrum that ran from effective to ineffective. In other words, it was possible for a leader to be:
- Ethical and effective.
- Unethical and ineffective.
- Ethical but ineffective.
- Effective but unethical.
President Donald Trump has illustrated the utility of these distinctions. Because in some ways he has been a bad leader, in other ways he has been a good leader, and in still other ways he has been a great, as in exceptional, leader.
First, how, during the last four years, has Trump been a bad leader? He has been unethical – so unethical that he has been at one end of the axis that runs from ethical to unethical. Let me count some of the ways.
- He has been chronically corrupt.
- He has been chronically dishonest.
- He has been chronically divisive.
- He has been chronically defensive.
- He has been chronically disruptive.
- He has been chronically abusive.
- He has been chronically bigoted.
- He has been chronically crass.
How has President Trump fared on the other axis, the one that runs from effective to ineffective? Here the answer is more mixed.
- He has been woefully ineffective as it pertained to the pandemic.
- He has been quite ineffective as it pertained to domestic policy.
- He has been quite ineffective as it pertained to foreign policy.
He has been, however, exceptionally effective at accomplishing much of what he wanted and intended.
Goals Trump set and successfully reached include:
- He gained and maintained a sizeable base of fervently dedicated and fiercely loyal followers.
- Re refashioned the Supreme Court.
- He took over the Republican Party.
- He reduced Republican Senators to being servile and supine.
- He turned Fox News into a presidential puppet.
- He politicized the civil service.
- He diminished expertise.
- He demonized the opposition.
- He demoralized the intelligence community.
- He alienated America’s allies.
- He shattered norms at home – and abroad.
Final verdict: In some ways Trump has been a bad leader. But, in other ways, Trump has been a good leader – good as in effective. And, again, in still other ways he has been a great leader – a leader who has been inordinately, atypically effective. By this I mean that President Donald Trump’s imprint on America has been deep. Whatever happens tomorrow, Election Day 2020, his presidency will go down in American history as one of the most consequential ever. If liberal democracy trumps Trump, it will be remembered by many of his contemporaries as a close call.