At an event a few years ago, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon was waiting to take the stage when the woman speaking ahead of him rolled out a whopper of an idea to the audience.
“You always need at least one person on your team to tell you the truth,” she said.
As she left the stage, Dimon stopped her and shook his head. She was absolutely wrong, he said.
“If there’s only one person telling me the truth,” he said, “I might as well fire the rest of the team.”
That story, which Dimon told me a few years ago, comes to mind as I watch the terrifying, unsteady performance of President Donald Trump in Europe this last week. Every leader needs help—a team that knows how to play to the bosses’ strength and not just salute. Without that, it’s easy to lose your way.
That’s especially true in the most important, and powerful, office in the world. Unfortunately for President Trump—and for the rest of us—that’s exactly what’s happening right now.
I have known President Trump for a dozen years and believe he—and we—need help. Now. He hates being trapped in a corner, and that is where he presently is positioned. Only he (and maybe Robert Mueller’s team) know if there is something unpatriotic behind his unconventional (to put it mildly) and alarming approach to Russia. It may be some compromised situation, financial entanglements—or simply his strategic view of keeping your friends far and your enemies closer.
“Now, by offending our allies—virtually all of them at once—and courting our enemies, Trump’s signature style seems to finally be hitting a wall.”
But whatever is going on, from his back-to-back G-7 trade assault on allies and threats to NATO, to his disastrous and bizarre Putin Summit, President Trump’s performance over the last week is a case study in why everyone in a corner office—Oval or otherwise—has to have the right support or risk disaster.
Divide and conquer has been key to Donald Trump’s leadership style for decades—as anyone who watched The Apprentice knows. This strategy was on full display, and served him well, in the Republican primaries, when all 12 fellow candidates were confused as Trump divided and subdivided them into warring camps with belittling barbs.
As president, he’s tried this style in other arenas— pitting Pfizer against Merck; Ford against GM; Canada against Mexico, China against Russia, Boeing against Lockheed Harley against Kawasaki, and Amazon against Alibaba, and on and on—each time with less and less success. Now, by offending our allies—virtually all of them at once—and courting our enemies, Trump’s signature style seems to finally be hitting a wall.
Trump likes the battle of competing ideas and the element of surprise over a predictable path, but with the unprecedented turnover on his team, the question is: Do the current White House advisors know how to serve such an unconventional leader? It doesn’t seem so. Many around him in the White House and Congress were not his backers, and placate him to prove their loyalty above all else.
Trump’s defenders have had three key arguments: 1) Disruptive change was required that incumbents of both parties needed so the long term gain will be worth short term pain, and 2) All top leaders have unique leadership styles and—shrug—this is just Trump being Trump and 3) he’s new to public office, so give him some time to learn about diplomacy.
Unfortunately, Trump’s handlers created these explanations—and not President Trump himself—and those handlers or apologists who really understood him and could help manage him, are largely gone or marginalized. Hope Hicks, for instance, was one of those who could pull the thorn from the lion’s paw without being mauled. She’s long gone.
What’s interesting about Trump is that while he has hair-trigger sensitivity to criticism (our relationship started with a blistering attack following my panning The Apprentice in The Wall Street Journal) and likes to be his own mouthpiece, he is more open to different points of view than many would expect. He is very reticent to apologize, but with little ideology to anchor him, when he sees he is going down the wrong path he can perform midcourse corrections on a dime—as we saw last week with Theresa May.
Unfortunately, he is now in a situation any leader should fear and avoid at all costs: Surrounded by enablers who, fearful of angering him, play to his worst instincts to stay on his good side.
The stakes for President Trump getting this wrong are higher than ever. This nation was painfully divided with our bloodiest war 150 years ago and wrenching social disharmony in the 1960s battles over war, race relations, environmental and other issues. Surveys now show a nation heading down that path in the response to his leadership. The anger over split national views on core issues from race to regulation, government to gender, immigration to investment, taxation to trade have eroded national spirit confused the world.
That’s why, no matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you should be rooting for Trump to get the team he needs in place. And do it fast.