There’s something nearly pornographic about the footage of Donald Trump’s recent Cabinet meeting, in which his appointees heap praise on the president and try to top each other in professing what an honor it is to work for him. On seeing it, I felt burning shame for the sycophantism on display. It was a complete farce.
It’s exhausting trying to keep up with, analyze and then decide what to do about the latest debasement of the office of the presidency coming from its current occupant. President Trump's treatment of his role highlights disparities in our collective view of what it means to be a good leader. Trump and his supporters seem to think the right metric is, “The president can do pretty much whatever the hell he wants.”
I’d like to suggest an alternative, where we put principles of servant leadership -- in which the leader focuses on service to the cause and the team -- back in the mix.
Trump himself clearly has a strongman philosophy. From the beginning, he seems to have equated machismo and entitlement with competence and influence. For example, he congratulated the president of the Philippines on fighting illegal drug activity, a president who has openly bragged about murdering his own citizens as part of that approach. Or, his wiliness — nay, happiness — to sit there and absorb all that marshmallow fluff in the cabinet meeting. Strongmen like power, and with that comes servitude.
This machismo model continues to penetrate our American understanding of competent authority.
This machismo model continues to penetrate our American understanding of competent authority. We want the tough guy who will do the tough thing, and some part of us is grateful that he’s on watch. (Think Jack Nicholson playing Colonel Jessup in "A Few Good Men.")
Elected officials, however, are also public servants, including and especially the president. It is reasonable, therefore, to argue that for public servants, strength should be matched with service. Servant leadership has been a widely accepted leadership practice for those who have appropriate awe for their responsibilities and seek to bring out the best in others.
The Greenleaf Center on Servant Leadership offers 12 servant leadership principles, including listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, growth, building community, calling and nurturing the spirit.
Given that even Pope Francis probably struggles to embody all 12 traits, let’s set a lower, but still reasonable, bar for President Trump. In our divided democratic society, where the elected public servant represents a diverse polity, and where accountability is necessary for continued faith in government, I propose strength should at least be matched with listening, empathy, awareness, building community and stewardship.
We have not seen any of these qualities from President Trump.
Listening? He has 32 million followers on Twitter, but he follows only 45 people, and blocks anyone he doesn’t like. You can’t listen to people who can’t talk to you.
Empathy? Look at his early morning tweets after this most recent London terror attack -- in poor taste, mocking London’s leadership, and capitalizing on the grief and violence for his own agenda.
Awareness? The president was stunned that there was pushback on his move to fire then-FBI director James Comey.
What about building community? Walling off Mexicans, “America First” and pitting the rich against the poor in health care reform hardly gets the job done.
Stewardship? President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. He is being sued for violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, and arguably made a $2 trillion counting error in his budget proposal.
It’s time to demand service, not to offer servitude.
Fortunately, more than one person leads this country. President Trump just nominated a new FBI director. As of late April, the White House had 468 presidential appointments left to complete. We have seven special House and Senate elections in 2017, and a whole passel of public leaders to hold accountable every day — including those fawning cabinet members.
Any American who has ever known a great leader surely will recognize in that person both safety and inspiration, someone who had their backs and who built up their spirits. It is not too much to ask for both, especially from those who seek to lead our nation. It’s time to demand service, not to offer servitude.