Trump – Guess what! He’s Leadership Literate!

Some years ago I developed a course at the Harvard Kennedy School titled “Leadership Literacy.”* It’s not, obviously, a how-to course. Rather the students  and I get at leadership by reading great works about leadership (such as by Plato, Machiavelli, and Freud), great works that are, themselves, acts of leadership (such as by Paine, Marx and Engels, and Friedan), and great works that echo leaders leading (such as by Gandhi, Churchill, and King).

One thing to emerge from the classics is how some of the history’s greatest leaders ever developed their ideas, and also their tactics and strategies, by taking to the printed page. In articulating on paper and, or, out loud, what they thought about leadership and why, they drafted a blueprint for how they later led.

Not only did legendary leaders do this – lesser leaders did the same. Ronald Reagan is a case in point. We now know about him that far from being the bozo he was frequently depicted, well before moving into the White House he had written and spoken extensively about policy, both domestic and foreign.

I am not drawing any parallels. But I am pointing out that Donald Trump – who himself has been thought a buffoon, a political novice and establishment outsider – is by no means a lightweight or even fresh to the fray. Far from it – as his literary legacy testifies.

First, though he has been a businessman first and foremost, like many other top corporate leaders, Trump has been steeped in politics for decades. Second, we recently learned that he gave serious thought to running for political office as far back as 1988. There’s an anecdote in Jon Meacham’s new biography of George H.W. Bush that reveals that Trump angled for, or at least flirted with being Bush’s original running mate. (Bush ultimately chose Dan Quayle.) Finally, and this returns us to being leadership literate, Trump has written books, a number of books, all of which deal either directly or indirectly with how to lead.

Most candidates for president now feel obliged to write a book – usually on how they’re the ones to save a declining America. Trump just did the same – it’s titled Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.  But unlike most of his competitors, Trump’s been writing books for years, nearly every one about how he has been and maybe you too can be a stunning American success story. His biggest seller so far has been The Art of the Deal. It was originally published in 1987 – when Trump was all of 41!

Trump is a leader who has put his pen to paper for decades. Trump is a leader who has long thought about how to navigate and even dictate the intersecting worlds of business and government. Of money and media. And of people and power. Whatever else you might think him, to think him a fool is foolish.


*The syllabus for the course is posted on line. A book based on the course is titled Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence.

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