Why Donald Trump is a terrible manager

CONSIDER THE attributes of the ideal modern manager. Such a boss would consider a wide range of factors before making a decision. He or she would earn the loyalty of their staff by treating them fairly, and listening to their views. Good managers do not seek to take all the credit when things go right, and nor do they assign blame to others when things go wrong. The best bosses also choose their words carefully when speaking or commenting in public.

President Donald Trump earned his fame as a businessman, and as a host of a reality TV show about management. So it is all the more remarkable that he displays none of the characteristics of the ideal modern manager. He seems an unlikely candidate to be hired as the boss of a multinational corporation.

Let us start with decision-taking. Famously, President Trump is reluctant to read briefing papers and likes to follow his “gut instinct” when making policy choices or appointing staff. And there are some examples where instinct can be a good guide: firefighters may instantly be able to sense the danger of collapse when entering a house, for example. But those instincts have been developed through long hours of experiencing similar situations, so the firefighter picks up subtle cues that others might not spot.

But as Olivier Sibony points out in his book “You’re About To Make A Terrible Mistake”, the kind of strategic decisions made by a top executive are relatively rare and the feedback on such decisions is “seldom unambiguous and never quick”. In such matters, Mr Sibony suggests, expert intuition cannot develop. The same is true of personnel decisions; unstructured interviews are very poor predictors of job success.

Indeed, when it comes to hiring, Mr Trump’s gut instincts haven’t worked. Figures compiled by the Brookings Institution show that his administration has had a significantly higher turnover rate of senior staff than the last five American Presidents. In his first year of office, the attrition rate was around double that of Ronald Reagan, the next worst performer. Even when Mr Trump has hired people who were successful in other fields, such as Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, or General Jim Mattis of the Marines and head of Central Command, the appointments did not last.

In part, this was due to Mr Trump’s habit of undermining his cabinet members in public. Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, was referred to as “very weak” and “disgraceful” in the President’s tweets. Such public attacks are not generally seen as a sign of good management. “A good rule of thumb for giving feedback is to praise in public and criticise in private” writes Kim Scott of Radical Candor, a management training group.

Overall, in his public comments, Mr Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading statements during his tenure, according to the Washington Post’s fact-checking service. Some of these can be put down to typical politician’s bluster. But a chief executive who made so many erroneous comments would be likely to lose the confidence of directors, customers and investors.

The main reason why Mr Trump is such an atypical executive is that he developed his style at the helm of his own company, where there were no institutional checks on his behaviour. When a dominant boss overshadows his subordinates, the danger is “groupthink”, when mistaken views go unchallenged. And while Mr Trump achieved some successes as a property developer, his tax returns show massive losses.

Some might argue that the idiosyncrasies of Mr Trump’s style haven’t prevented him from being an effective President. Observers will have different measures of success depending on their political viewpoint. But one approach is to look at the various stakeholders. Mr Trump’s domestic approval ratings have consistently stayed below 50%, unlike all other post-war Presidents. Globally, a survey by the Pew Research Center of citizens in 32 countries in the spring of 2019 found that they were more confident that Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping would “do the right thing” than Mr Trump.

Economic growth is also trumpeted as one of the successes of the administration. Before he came to office, Mr Trump suggested that he might achieve GDP growth of 4% a year. But the growth rate he actually achieved from 2017 to 2019 was 2.5%; not bad, but barely different from the 2.4% achieved in the last three years of the Obama administration. Another common measure of achievement is the change in the “misery index”, the combined total of inflation and unemployment. Thanks to this year’s jump in unemployment, the misery index has risen during his term, placing him at the lower end of the table of post-war Presidential economic achievement.

Of course, the recent downturn in the economy relates to Covid-19. But his record is not good on that measure; in terms of deaths per million of population, the US is the ninth-worst country in the world, at the time of writing. Most of the countries with worse records are in South America. The US death rate per capita is more than double that of Canada, and five times that of Germany. Again, this may be down to his unwillingness to focus on the detail.

The crucial judgment will of course be made by voters who will get the chance to tell Mr Trump “You’re fired” (or not) in just two weeks’ time.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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