A Leadership Lens on the 2016 US Presidential Election


The United States are still recovering from an extremely intense and adversarial Presidency campaign. Analysts will likely be hard at work explaining the results and voting patterns for months, because there is no single, straightforward answer. Economics, party loyalty, racism, sexism, islamophobia, frustration with the system, anger at the Establishment… all of these probably played a part, and other things too. Part of the explanation, I believe, lies in American beliefs about leadership. I would suggest that the campaign was at least partly a contest between two visions of leadership, with Donald Trump representing the hero-leader, and Hilary Clinton representing collaborative leadership.

The Hero-Leader

On the hero-leader side, history books are full of generals who triumphed in battle, and Presidents who imposed their will on their enemies. The “American Dream” is all about men who start with nothing and work their way up into positions of power and wealth. Americans are brought up to admire these people, to respect them, and to work hard to join them. Leaders, in these stories, are strong, decisive, visionary; they set the direction, and others follow. Donald Trump certainly fit this hero persona better than Hilary Clinton. He is a tall, large man. He spoke bluntly and even aggressively. And possibly most important, he promised to take care of people, to make all their problems go away. It didn’t matter whether he truly could or not, the idea that someone else was willing to shoulder the burden was very appealing.

Collaborative Leadership

Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, made things more complicated. She was open about the challenges and didn’t have any easy answers. Not only does she not fit the physical, gendered stereotype of the hero, she did not promise to make it all better. She appealed to people who believe there are no easy answers, and who want to be part of figuring out the solutions. Her style of leadership, while being more collaborative, demands more of followers than the hero leader style. When people are stressed out and feeling hopeless and powerless, this is a much less attractive style of leadership; this could be why many people were not willing to follow her.

Role of Followers

So will Trump deliver on his promises? Can a hero really change a system in today’s complicated world? Only time will tell, but the challenges of the Obama presidency suggest that even a powerful, charismatic leader can only do so much. The power of leaders is shaped by the nature and number of their followers. In his video First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy, Derek Sivers even argues that followers have more power than leaders.

What are your beliefs about leadership? How do those affect your choices day to day, either as a leader or as a follower?