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Is Donald Trump an Authentic Leader?

How will we know if we have elected the ‘right’ leader for our country?

Leadership theories generally focus on one’s ability to set standards that others can relate to; to treat others justly; to meet the needs of followers; to be mission-driven; and make values-based decisions. A relatively new leadership theory is “authentic leadership.” Authentic leaders are individuals who are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by others as being aware of their own and others’ values/moral perspectives, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, optimistic, resilient, courageous, and of high moral character.

Authentic leaders acknowledge the ethical responsibilities of their roles, can recognize and evaluate ethical issues, and take moral actions that are thoroughly grounded in their beliefs and values.

When I look at Donald Trump in the context of authentic leadership I can see some of those qualities. For example, authentic leaders are self-aware – “know thyself.” A prerequisite for being an authentic leader is knowing your own strengths, limitations, and values. Knowing what you stand for and what you value is critical. Moreover, self-awareness is needed in order to develop the other components of authentic leadership.

An authentic leader also exhibits relational transparency – “be genuine.” This involves being honest and straightforward in dealing with others. An authentic leader does not play games or have a hidden agenda. You know where you stand with an authentic leader. We certainly know where we stand with Donald Trump. He doesn’t shy away from telling us what he thinks.

However, “the Donald” misses the mark on the other two attributes of an authentic leader, which are to have balanced processing – “be fair-minded” – and an internalized moral perspective – “do the right thing.” An effective authentic leader solicits opposing viewpoints and considers all options before choosing a course of action. There is no impulsive action or “hidden agendas”–plans are well thought out and openly discussed. It is hard to say this of Trump since he hasn’t shared a whole lot of his plans and one can make the case he does have a hidden agenda. He also seems to act impulsively from time to time, or at least make impulsive comments.

It is the last characteristic that troubles me the most. I don’t see Trump as being driven by ethical values. In ethics, we distinguish between ethical values (i.e., honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, and so on) and non-ethical values such as fame, fortune, and wealth. Ethics emphasizes the ethical values as the pathway to a better life –act rightly. You would have to be an ostrich to truly believe Trump is motivated by anything other than non-ethical values.

The roots of authentic leadership come from ancient Greek philosophy that focuses on the development of core, or cardinal, virtues. These virtues are Prudence (fair-mindedness, wisdom, seeing all possible courses of action), Temperance (being emotionally balanced and in control), Justice (being fair in dealings with others), and Fortitude (courage to do the right thing).

Becoming an authentic leader is not easy. It takes a great deal of self-reflection (getting to know oneself), and the courage to do the right thing. It involves a degree of selflessness. In a world full of morally corrupt and dysfunctional leaders, authentic leadership theory has become quite popular as people search for the “good” leaders.

Come to think of it, there is one Republican candidate who seems to meet all the criteria for being an authentic leader – Dr. Ben Carson. The question is, assuming I am right, is being an authentic leader an important enough character trait to elect someone to be the next President of the U.S. I believe it merits our consideration because if it’s one thing we’ve lacked for many years in politics it is authentic leaders. Instead, we have had to endure leadership driven by serving special interest groups and paying back others who have helped the person get elected.

The next Republican debate is tomorrow night. It would be nice if the moderators focused on the important issues in trying to ferret out the true character of these candidates. After all, isn’t it all about character? If you have a strong character informed by ethical values, then logic dictates you will do the right thing whether that means to do what is necessary to improve the economic standing of all Americans or take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the security of our people at home and abroad.

Here is a question I suggest: What will be your legacy? At the end of your days, what will you tell your grandchildren you did to better humankind?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 15, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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