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Having an opinion and being able to voice it gets you elected. Donald Trump applies this simple rule of charisma to the dismay of many.

Let’s not be smug about Donald Trump.

In Europe we look with amazement at the way Donald Trump is winning the pre-elections for the republican nomination. We were amused by Sarah Palin, but now we are amazed (or shocked) by the success of this person who ventilates strange opinions about almost everything. We also see that his opinions are not very founded, not deep, not consistent and not reliable. But apparently nobody seems to care. Or at least a lot of people seem not to care, because they vote for him.
But let’s not be smug about this. In other countries and political systems we see the same phenomenon. Berlusconi andOrbàn are European examples of populist heads of state who have gained popular vote with often funny, tragic and outrageous programs. So let’s not laugh and just accept that Trump seems to appeal to (a part of) the U.S. population. You might not like it, but it’s democracy in its splendid imperfection.

Charisma: Having an Opinion

What is striking about Donald Trump? He has an opinion and he is able to express it forcefully. That’s all there is to it. And once you are able to formulate an opinion, you appeal to 2 categories of people: (1) those who have the same opinion, (2) those who do not have one but who can adopt yours. And if you can express it forcefully, you appeal to a third category: this who are in doubt. People think, wow, this guy is so convinced (and convincing), he must be right.
So you appeal also to people without an opinion, or with a weak opinion. And this might be the people who usually do not get out and vote. But that’s democracy too.
Some people would call that charisma. And yes, it’s certainly a part of charisma. But is it charismatic leadership?  Sometimes charismatic leadership comes from reputation, that’s the Trump case. Sometomes leadership comes from character. The latter is more sustainable as a basis for leadership. The former is not very sustainable. Chances are that Trump will not deliver on his promises. It might be that once in power he will find himself confronted with reality: health care issues, budget restrictions, international politics, treaties, public opinion, ….

From Opinion to Power

But the only way to find out is to let hem take office. To many this is a frightful idea. But this too is democracy. If every citizen would analyse in detail the programs of the candidates, election results might be different and maybe some people would not get elected. But you can never know.
Now I could make comparisons with other demagogues who came into power by having an opinion and voicing it forcefully. But let’s not go back into history. Let’s look at the future. How can we influence the choice? There are two ways:

  • by having a stronger opinion and voicing it more forcefully, or
  • by making sure that people who vote for better candidates get out and vote.

Sustainable Leadership is more than Charisma

Charismatic leadership itself is not sustainable. Leadership based on character is. So I wish that every nation that has the chance to decide who gets into the seat of power, can vote for leaders who base their leadership on the strength of their character and not on the volume of their voice. But a nation gets the leaders it creates. It’s too easy to say: les Republicains, ils se trumpent. Sound the Trumpet.
For more info on Donald Trump, check The Economist.
In april 2016 my book on Sustainable Leadership will be published by Die Keure in Dutch, French and English.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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