by Rob Enderle

Trump presidency offers lessons in how not to lead

May 05, 2017
GovernmentIT Leadership

Columnist Rob Enderle writes that history has proven that advancing leaders who lack the competencies for success never ends well, yet it continues to happen.

As we watch what is shaping up to be a failed presidency, one historic problem becomes clear. Time and again we witness how CEOs who have been advanced to leadership roles without first building a breadth of competencies cannot succeed. It all comes down to the need to ensure an adequate foundation for success, something that often separates successful firms from those that fail. Other than being defined by irony, the Trump presidency is, so far, as much a showcase of what not to do when you have a relatively inexperienced leader running the effort.

[ Related: How a CEO can kill a company in 5 easy steps ]

Let’s talk about that this week.

The inexperienced CEO

There is a very big difference between a CEO who has come up inside a firm and was rotated to get the necessary breadth or is a subject matter expert in the field the firm is in vs. one who isn’t.   This can happen for a lot of reasons. Examples of CEOs who lacked the necessary experience and breadth include the following:

  • Carly Fiorina: She was largely too focused not only on marketing, but in telephony and thus lacked both the breadth of skills needed and the product knowledge to run HP. Mark Hurd, who performed much better, had both and did far better until a scandal removed him from the firm.
  • Jim Barksdale: He had the needed breadth, but no real understanding of the industry and thus Netscape failed. Meanwhile, Google had Eric Schmidt with both breadth and industry knowledge and the company was dramatically more successful. It is interesting to note that both Netscape and Google employed these non-founders to make up for a deep lack of skills in the founders. One worked and the other didn’t (but Google points the way to a fix).  
  • Travis Kalanick: While he hasn’t killed Uber yet, he appears to be making an impressive effort to do so. Clearly lacking both the skills and demeaner of a CEO, he has become a huge liability for the firm. Contrast him with Larry Ellison who clearly became a liability in the 1990s, but then employed Safra Catz and Mark Hurd to run the firm, and Oracle is doing fine as a result.  
  • Marissa Mayer: Almost a clone of Carly Fiorina regarding skills shortcomings though with a far better work ethic, but still she nearly put Yahoo out of business.   In contrast, John Chen at Blackberry came in from the outside, but he did so with a CEO skillset and an understanding of the industry. His transition took while hers did not largely because John could build and execute a vison and Marissa could not.  

[ Related: What CEOs can learn from President Trump’s coup ]

President Trump’s shortcomings

Like a lot of people who are awarded a leadership role and don’t earn it, over time the U.S. President both over-delegates and seems to be repeating a long list of mistakes his predecessors have made. That appears particularly ironic because candidate Trump called President Obama out on these very same mistakes during that earlier presidency and yet has gone on to make said mistakes himself. This typically is an indicator of both excessive delegation and a lack of experience. The President is out of the loop regarding the decision that has been delegated and the person that has made it has no historical reference that presents them with the information they need to avoid repeating a mistake.  

[ Related: How a CEO assessment model might predict Trump’s success or failure ]

By the way, another common behavior in a new CEO, in this case one that is promoted too quickly, is a tendency to want to go back and do the last thing they were successful at often driving their successor nuts or shirking the CEO job to do things that feel more rewarding. In the case of the President that could explain both going back into campaign mode and playing an excessive amount of golf.  

Oracle likely provides the best example of how to fix this. Placing the political equivalent of a Safra Catz and Mark Hurd under Trump could allow the President to flip from failure to success and completely address the leadership problems defining this, so far, failed presidency.  

Learning from experience, or not

It fascinates me that we get what I think are obvious examples of both successful and unsuccessful paths to running firms and often leaders seem to prefer the unsuccessful path. Granted this is often due to an unwillingness of the new CEO to effectively share power (e.g., Carly Fiorina and Marissa Mayer), or an inability to understand the CEOs shortcomings and mitigate them (Mark Andreessen/Jim Barksdale at Netscape, and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft), but the result is the same a failed leadership effort and, often, a failed company.

[ Related: How a bad board of directors could kill HPE ]

CEOs and even U.S. Presidents can be supplemented and that effort is clearly in place with the Trump presidency, but the resulting team is dysfunctional and at the heart of what is causing what appears to be a failed U.S. Presidency. Learning from this, rather than repeating it, could go a long way to assuring the next CEO or U.S. President doesn’t fail.

While it is easy to be critical of the U.S. President, it would be far better to ensure this was a learning experience and that the mistakes made aren’t repeated (or maybe fixed in real time).   It often troubles me that more effort often seems to be made covering up problems than in understanding and eliminating them.