Executive coaches are normalizing a demagogue. It’s time to stop.

Benito Mussolini in 1930s Italy


This will ruffle feathers.

The field in which I work, executive coaching, faces an identity crisis. We claim to stand for better leadership. It’s part of our core promise to clients. Yet we often get mired in mushy talk about style, treating people as one big horizontal typology. So we blind ourselves and others to what leadership is most deeply about: not how a person talks, but for whose benefit.

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Unfortunately, the “style” view of leadership dominates the field. This blinds us to history: tyrants and demagogues have ruled human civilization for centuries. More importantly, by ignoring morality, we shirk our responsibility to clients and society by ignoring the tyrants and demagogues in our midst.

I know we can do better.

Let’s start with this year’s U.S. presidential race.

It’s not about “Feeler” versus “Doer”

Clinton is a “Feeler,” whereas Trump is a “Doer.” That’s the opinion of a seasoned executive coach quoted last year in Inc. “No style is better or worse than the others,” she says. “And Doers can be extremely effective leaders.”

Pause the tape. Is this the biggest distinction between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Feeler versus Doer. Is this what we want to say when given a public platform?

Really?

I glanced at this coach’s web site. Her team includes people I know and respect. Her company runs women’s leadership retreats. She undoubtedly is familiar with the history of men getting hired over better qualified women and the dangers of cruel, autocratic leaders of any sex. So, I’m curious: why did she choose to focus on differences in style? Perhaps she was quoted out of context. Or maybe she criticized Trump’s moral character, yet the writer chose to omit this.

Either way, I think this coach let herself be used to normalize a dangerous demagogue. Normalizing. That’s what happens when we place a person like Trump into soft, familiar categories. He’s not an egocentric, deceptive bully who aims to dominate and humiliate others. No, he’s a “Doer.” Just like many readers of Inc. Just like you and me.

Is this the best we can do as a profession? Have we spent so many hours staring at 360 assessment instruments that we’ve forgotten about human history and moral character?

I hope not.

It’s not about “Collaboration” versus “Inspiration”

Yet the signs continue to come. Yesterday, I got an email from friends of mine linking to an article they just published in a major business journal. It’s about the election. It focuses on…yes…style.

Ugh.

They draw a distinction between “collaboration” (Clinton) and “inspiration” (Trump). “An effective approach,” they write, “balances directive and inclusive traits.”

Friends, it’s six weeks before the election. A impulsive and vindictive man is in position to have his hands on the nuclear codes.  He will be talking with, and probably lobbing insults at, leaders of other nuclear weapons states. Is this all we leadership coaches have to say about Trump? That he is inspiring and directive?

Really?

When my friends see this post, I imagine what they’ll say: “Amiel, chill out. We’re not going to vote for him. And we noted his low score from PolitiFact for truthfulness. We’re just taking advantage of a great learning opportunity. People can’t stop talking about the election. Shouldn’t we shed some light on what it means?”

Yes, but not that meaning. The core leadership lessons here are about character, not style. Moral fiber, not verbal communication.

It’s about levels of moral development in a nuclear age

What is the fundamental difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? It’s not about horizontal typology–the way they roll. It’s about levels of vertical moral development: who they are willing and unwilling to roll over.

A quick primer on moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard first articulated the theory, and Carol Gilligan applied it to women. Both outline three broad levels of moral development. As kids, we are egocentric. Then, most of us progress to ethnocentric. We identify with people who are like us. Finally, a minority of us progress to worldcentric. We identify with everyone. The higher the level, the more people we include in our own self-interest. In other words, the very meaning of “self” broadens as we develop through these levels. To summarize:

  • Egocentrism is about me
  • Ethnocentrism is about us, i.e. my family, my tribe, my race, my country
  • Worldcentrism is about all of us, i.e. all families, tribes, races, and countries.

“Me” to “Us” to “All of us.”

Hillary Clinton is not just a smart, experienced, and hard-working person. She embodies a worldcentric view. This doesn’t mean she is without flaws. It means that she can do real leadership work in spite of her flaws. For example, she has a penchant for privacy/secrecy that has hardened over time. But did this keep her from succeeding as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State? Not if you listen to the views of Republicans when interviewed about her while she was in office. They gave her high marks on her performance and universally agreed on her capacity to listen.

Where would you put Donald Trump? He’s been widely criticized for racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, so he’s ethnocentric, right?

I don’t think so. Donald is all about Donald. He is egocentric. Most of his outrageous and offensive talk is for the sake of himself. His poll numbers. His adulation from crowds. And, God forbid, his victory in November.

Trump lives to dominate and humiliate others, even those, like Chris Christie, who are his allies. (Take note, Vladimir Putin). He can’t stop talking about himself: his buildings, his money, his crowds, even his genitals. He lies so often to appear dominant that many people no longer notice. He even interprets terrorist attacks through the lens of his own pride (“I predicted it! Now my poll numbers will go even higher.”)

Even the man’s charitable foundation isn’t about serving others. David Fahrenthold, a reporter for the Washington Post, has done tenacious reporting about the Trump Foundation. Every few days he turns up new evidence of Trump’s egocentric corruption. The latest: Trump used hundreds of thousands of “charitable” dollars to pay his legal bills.

So is Trump ethnocentric?

No, because he has not yet developed that far.

He is an egocentric demagogue in position to be Commander in Chief.

Nuclear weapons are not profit and loss statements

Why does this matter? Because the stakes are high.

The President’s most serious responsibility doesn’t involve profit and loss statements. It involves nuclear weapons. Losing your cool in diplomacy can have enormous implications. Forget the nuclear codes for a moment and consider the impact of words. What if the person Trump insults isn’t a reporter but the head of a nuclear weapons state?
Maybe my friends and the coach quoted in Inc weren’t thinking about this. We’ve gotten so used to seeing Trump on talk shows that we forget this is about the Oval Office.
The New Yorker just published a piece imagining Trump’s first term. Read it, and you’ll find all this talk about “style” to be trifling.

Take a smart stand

So, fellow leadership coaches, it’s time to stop describing Trump as a “Doer” who brings “Inspiration.” Please, no more of this tepid talk!

Instead, let’s take a stand that we are uniquely qualified to take. Let’s speak out as leadership coaches about the real difference between these candidates. How and where you do this is up to you. No need to sacrifice your career or friendships–most of the actions you can take will affect neither.

For an example, check out the open letter about the election that over 100 leadership coaches have signed. For many, it was a courageous act. One East Coast coach said, “NEVER would have done this via my professional network previously. MUST do so in this circumstance.”

We can do better.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Donna Fowler

    Moral development is the key difference in competence for world leaders. Bravo Amiel!

    • Amiel Handelsman

      Thanks, Donna