In the first few minutes of President Donald Trump’s inaugural cabinet meeting, the President seemingly encouraged all participants to, one by one, offer their allegiance, loyalty, and gratefulness for the opportunity to serve his agenda. They used words like, “privileged,” “deeply honored,” and even “blessed.” The President smiled broadly and nodded, and then compared his accomplishments to the monumental first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in the midst of the Great Depression. It was a bizarre spectacle – a president seeking and receiving adulation from his handpicked top governmental advisors.
But it was more. It was a display– televised for all to see – of how not to construct an effective leadership team to oversee a large, dynamic, complex organization.
Teams at the Top
In Discourse on Leadership, I reviewed and analyzed the decades of research on top management teams, how they function, the role of the CEO in those teams, and their impact on the performance of the business.
In the context of a business organization, a “top management team” refers to the CEO and those executives with a direct reporting relationship. When they meet around a table, the CEO will typically be seated at the head, surrounded by the Chief Financial Officer and the heads of the various business divisions and units that undertake the work of the corporation. These are individuals who have responsibilities to both run their operations effectively and to participate in the overall management of the corporation. Tough decisions will be made on future directions and allocation of resources. As corporate officers, all decisions will be expected to reflect the best interests of the entire company, not just their individual domains.
Make no mistake, top management teams in corporations are hierarchical. Much like the U.S. cabinet, there is an individual who sits, literally and figuratively, at the head of the table. (In the case of the cabinet, that’s the President, and in the corporation, it’s the CEO.) That CEO was selected by the corporation’s board to assume ultimate responsibility for the performance of the organization.
In this regard, top management teams aren’t really teams at all, since the word team implies that all team members have shared responsibility and equal accountability for an agreed upon outcome. Management team meetings are often highly ritualized events in which little time is allotted for open, candid discussion. That is not to say, however, that top management teams are simply exercises in futility. Far from it.
The Chief Executive and the Team
At their best, top management teams may provide valuable and diverse advice to the CEO. In my own research, I have sat in on a number of such team meetings. When Archie Norman took over the failing UK-based grocery chain ASDA, he actively sought and sincerely valued the diverse input of his direct reports. Other corporate CEOs – the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, and Glatfelter’s Dante Parrini among them – have demonstrated a similar propensity to embrace diverse opinion and open discussion as a means to achieving outstanding performance. Obsequious and fawning behavior on the part of team members would have been taken as signs of weakness, even incompetence. Each of these CEOs had a perfectly well-functioning ego, supporting their desire to strive for position and authority and allowing them to make difficult decisions while convinced that they were up for the challenge. That ego is precisely what allowed them to seek advice and counsel from a diverse group of subordinates. Openness was seen not as a challenge to their authority but rather as an opportunity to improve.
Ego can spill over into destructive behavior as well, resulting in an attitude that says, ‘It’s all about me.” My own research suggests that the rein of Al Dunlap at Sunbeam, Jeff Skilling at Enron, and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett Packard fit this unfortunate pattern. Team members become reduced to observers of the naked Emperor strutting down the street, refusing to say, “You have no clothes!” The results for the company can be disastrous, as they were at Enron and as they were becoming at Uber until a worried board recently stepped in.
Some researchers have identified the fault as narcissism on the part of the CEO; an urgent need to be loved and to be seen as the center of activity. I would also point to a personality trait first identified in the 1940s as intolerance of ambiguity. Individuals with a high intolerance for ambiguity seek to replace complex, unpredictable situations with clarity and certainty. They tend to prefer centralized decision-making, with the role of team members to approve, obey, and implement. Telling the head of the team what a terrific job he is doing and how blessed it is to be working on his behalf would, to such an individual, be a highly desired situation. Intolerance becomes especially acute under conditions of threat (a highly publicized criminal investigation, for instance).
Narcissistic leaders with a high intolerance for ambiguity are likely to surround themselves with others who think and act like they do, which helps them avoid conflict, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Of course, if all team members are predisposed to think and act exactly like the chief executives, there is little likelihood that they will challenge each other’s thinking, create a rich range of options, or arrive at higher quality decisions. When the experiences, values, motivations, and biases of team members overlap, they are more likely to find consensus, but they are far less likely to engage in open debate, advocacy, inquiry, and complex problem-solving.
Now we can return to the question: Was Trump’s opening gambit at his first cabinet session any way to run a meeting? The answer is: it depends.
What is the Leader Trying to Achieve?
It may be the case that the leader seeks a sense of importance delivered from loyal followers. In government, demands for personal loyalty from the leader represent a step away from the rule of law and can be a precursor to the rise of tyranny. In small groups, such as religious cults, the results of excessive loyalty to the leader can be disastrous. Businesses, too, can devolve into cult-like institutions. It wasn’t just Enron; AIG, Washington Mutual, and more recently, VW have all suffered or collapsed under tyrannical leaders who favored highly centralized decision making and valued loyalty above all else.
In the case of the President, we have seen that Trump’s experience overseeing a private, family-owned business suggests his understanding of governance relates to a grant of allegiance on the part of followers. Reports of shouting matches with his Attorney General, as well as an uncomfortable private dinner with the soon-to-be-fired FBI chief, focus on an almost insatiable demand for such loyalty. The manner in which he opened his cabinet meeting, then, meets at least a short-term need for expressions of fealty on the part of the men and women who have been selected to head all the important government departments.
However, if the purpose of a meeting of the top management team is not about the reinforcement of the leader’s ego… if instead it’s about the opportunity to face the many challenges of the business together, to gain the diverse counsel of executives equally committed to the performance of the corporation, but with divergent views of how best to achieve outstanding performance, then the Trump model should be avoided.