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Leadership | Expert Opinion

Under Pressure

What Happens When Coercive Leaders Feel Cornered?

By Thomas Kolditz, founding Director of the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders.

What Happens When Coercive Leaders Feel Cornered?

This op-ed origianlly appeared on The Hill.

To leadership experts, Donald Trump has never been a particularly interesting exemplar. He mostly manages with coercive power — fear — and such a leadership style is all too common in formally appointed business leaders.

In addition to being common, the outcomes are predictable. Early research in leadership, by classic researchers John French and Bertram Raven in the 1950s, predicts that fear-based leadership leads to high levels of outward compliance but low levels of follower loyalty.

In other words, people who work for a leader like President Trump will do what he wants if they are vulnerable to him, but tend to be disloyal when not under his direct influence. This is why formerly loyal associates like Michael Cohen are willing to flip when confronted with something worse than the president’s wrath — namely jail time.

We can expect much more of that behavior as others leave the White House, particularly if they are indicted. It’s predictable and common, and uninteresting from a leadership perspective.

The recent anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, indicating significant disloyalty and undercutting of the president by his senior staff is interesting, even if it is also somewhat predictable.

The majority of the American people, that majority that did not support President Trump, are experiencing considerable angst over perceptions of disarray in the West Wing.

The anonymous op-ed writer clearly intended to put some of us at ease by revealing hard work (if surreptitious work) by the president’s staff to avert major disasters.

Given the president’s coercive style and his lack of familiarity with the workings of the government, it is not surprising that senior staff members are focused more on their constitutional obligations than on blind obedience to the president. That one of them anonymously reported this to the people of the United States seems almost expected.

What becomes much more interesting to leadership experts, however, and should be of interest to every American, is what happens now? What is the probable effect of having a group of dissenters in the White House staff?

Earlier research published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2012 and 2014 by Burris & Associates forewarns a pessimistic and dangerous reaction by a leader in President Trump’s circumstances. The work centers on leaders who are ego-defensive and challenged by subordinates.

The research suggests three distinct reactions by President Trump, all of which are disastrous for his ability to lead. First, he is likely to identify his staff as less competent and to listen to them less than before being challenged by the op-ed.

The opposite would be true for those he knows for sure are loyal — but exactly who might those people be? Thus, for those who are worried that President Trump tends not to listen to staff, hold onto your hats, it is likely to get much worse.

Second, the research would predict that the op-ed would trigger ego defensiveness because the letter is an unquestionable threat to the president’s self-image. This defensive stance will cause an increase in the president’s tendency to denigrate people, especially people with suggestions counter to his.

Such ego protective behavior will manifest in a near paranoid suspicion of other around him — something already apparent in his personality.

Lastly, the research strongly suggests that staff who are subjected to such treatment will partially (or perhaps entirely) shut down.

Almost certainly there will be a marked decrease in constructive dialogue around the president, and there is likely to be a decrease in the constructive dialogue among the White House staff themselves, given the risk of an unwanted idea being proffered to the president.

President Trump has now become an interesting leadership exemplar. The existing leadership literature clearly predicts a rapid, dramatic increase in many of the negative presidential leadership qualities and outcomes highlighted recently in books by Bob Woodward and Omarosa Manigault Newman.

Time will tell, but the unfolding of the story should now have the attention of everyone who believes that leadership based on character rather than coercion is an essential quality in the leader of the free world.

Tom Kolditz is the founding director of the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University. 

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