Leadership Trumps: Purpose or Process?


March 2nd, 2017

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Good leadership?

Here in Singapore, ‘good leadership’ matters. In Roffey Park’s 2016 Asia workplace survey of over 2000 organisational leaders and managers across the region, 73% of Singaporean respondents said ‘good leadership’ was their number one workplace motivation. So for the leaders we work with here, the question often arises “what is good leadership”? And the Trump question usually follows. “Is Trump’s leadership ‘good’ leadership?”

Regarding Trump, if ‘good’ leadership means people are following, then it qualifies. If ‘good’ leadership means it’s clear and decisive, then it qualifies. If ‘good’ leadership means articulating a future vision, then it qualifies.

But the very fact that it qualifies, calls two things into question;

  • the criteria applied, and
  • the usefulness of a ‘good leadership’ v ‘bad leadership’ distinction.

Leadership: Process or Purpose?

One flaw in this evaluation of leadership is its focus on ‘process’ and neglect of ‘purpose’. And those of us working in leadership development and research also tend to focus predominantly on leadership process – Relational Leadership, Strategic Thinking, Vision, Engagement, Change etc.

But can leadership be evaluated in isolation from its purpose?

The last decade of corporate leadership disasters has been dominated by stories of ‘purpose’ and ‘process’ having become uncoupled – from banking to deceptions about engine emissions testing.

But in reality, the two are rarely that neatly separable.

And then we’re still left questioning the usefulness of the ‘good’ v ‘bad’ leadership distinction.

‘Good’ Leadership or ‘bad’ leadership

It’s a perennial question; does ‘good’ leadership imply any moral or ethical quality? The arguments both ways are well documented, but many of us involved in leadership development often duck the question, or safely distance ourselves from it with a constructivist perspective; ‘Leadership is leadership as it’s construed, and legitimised as such, in the eyes of those choosing to follow. That argument holds that ‘leadership’ can only be understood contextually. And there’s a logic to that; for instance, the criteria which qualify leadership as ‘good’ here in Singapore might have differences to some criteria applied elsewhere.

But if  Trump’s leadership, and that of certain other world leaders can qualify as ‘good’, it seems there’s something inadequate in trying to evaluate leadership either simply in terms of ‘process’ or ‘purpose’, or in terms of ‘good leadership’ v ‘bad leadership’.

‘Politics of demonization’ breeding division and fear[1]

Last week, Amnesty International published its Human Rights report, highlighting that the Trump administration shares an increasingly crowded stage of world leaders using a “dangerous rhetoric, whether it be against drug dealers in the Philippines, or the way Australia has scapegoated asylum seekers.” [2]

We seem to be in a period of paradox – or maybe just tension between competing trends; on one hand, from consumers to social activists, an unwillingness to tolerate social injustices to which previous generations were blind, our online and real world lives transcending borders and time zones. And on the other, an escalation of isolationism and nationalism in Europe, the US and Asia, and an emergence of dehumanising and divisive world leaders, Trump being their vanguard.

Leadership or mis-leadership

The distinction I find myself increasingly applying isn’t between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ leadership, whether purpose or process. Borrowing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German philosopher and theologian executed for opposing the Nazi regime, I find a more useful distinction is between ‘leadership’ and ‘mis-leadership’.

If Trump was your CEO, it would be hard not to pity him. After all, what CEO can survive long being so humiliatingly ignorant and ill informed (The Sweden gaff? Or declaring that the US had slipped to having zero GDP?)

But he’s not a CEO. He’s president of what many used to think of as one of the world’s leading democracies. And when an administration condones torture, tacitly incites the hatred of specific people, and inspires murder, as with the assassination this weekend of Indian IT engineer, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, it cannot be evaluated as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ leadership; it is simply mis-leadership.

However soon the post-Trump world arrives, and in whatever state we emerge blinking into the sunlight at that point, we will find the airport bookshops crowded with Trump leadership books; hopefully those denouncing it outnumbering those advocating it.

So if as leadership developers and educators we claim any social value for our work, and if mis-leadership, whether in governments or corporations, deserves to be challenged and opposed at every opportunity, if that’s not by us, then by whom? And if not now, when?

[1] Amnesty International Human Rights report. February 2017

[2] CNN quoting Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/02/21/world/amnesty-human-rights-report/