Learning about Leadership from Donald J. Trump

Thomas Bateman
4 min readApr 1, 2020

Crisis Management and the NIH Syndrome

It’s not controversial — I’m pretty sure — to say that Donald J. Trump’s personality and management style are unique. Can the rest of us learn any lessons from the U.S. president about leadership, particularly in a crisis?

Critics say that we can learn what not to do, and will learn little if they think he’s too outrageous to scrutinize. Some supporters might model his actions, but this will backfire for most people working in more normal circumstances.

Readers can find plenty of material about President Trump that use psychoanalysis or highlight a single trait like narcissism, short-termism, or character. I have written about his leadership applying multiple perspectives, but here I highlight a unique theme that leaders everywhere should know.

Today’s Trumpian leadership theme is NIH: the Not Invented Here syndrome.

NIH is a bias against knowledge and ideas that come from outside sources — that is, not from oneself or one’s team, in-group members, or organization. NIH leads to evaluating ideas inaccurately, rejecting good ones, and accepting bad ones — and thus to higher costs, lower performance, and outright failures.

The NIH syndrome is evident everywhere, especially when a person in a commanding position is overconfident, closed-minded, or prejudiced. Consider just a few of President Trump’s” comments about our current crisis: “The virus will not have a chance against us. He is pursuing “the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.” And, perhaps I’m paraphrasing, “My unqualified son-in-law is my go-to advisor and designated leader, even in pandemics.”

Time continues to reveal new facts and anecdotes about how the pandemic is being managed, but so far the administration shows little or no interest in outside ideas about or help with preventive measures, tests, protective equipment, supply chain issues, fast implementation, or communication strategies and tactics.

No doubt, some offers were rejected for good reasons, like quality concerns about particular tests. But NIH is clearly a leader-induced pattern, creating poor choices and results.

Here are people to whom the president occasionally — rightly or wrongly — listens

Close family members, a small White House in-group, favored donors, favored Fox commentators, and perhaps a few other Mar-A-Lago guests.

Here are some potentially-useful people whom the president doesn’t seem to talk with, listen to, or learn from

Anyone outside of his in-group. The president prefers family and friends’ business interests even as a vast and productive private sector is willing to help.

Anyone who criticizes him — thereby including former in-group members thrown onto a fast train to the out-group.

Experts, including scientists.

Democrats — even experienced, smart, capable Democrats.

Governors and mayors of both parties doing good work on the pandemic. The president needs to work with and through these public officials, but his tweets are more likely to mock and offend them than create support.

Anyone beneath him in his hierarchies, excepting his family and inner circle. Even the alleged “total government” approach has not capitalized adequately on the Department of Defense, Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, CDC, and others.

International organizations.

Individuals from other countries, excepting a handful of like-minded politicians and strongmen. The administration did not even notify, let alone consult with, the European Unioni before announcing the travel ban. The United States cannot contain this pandemic without extensive help from other countries, allies and competitors and antagonists alike.

Ignoring the best knowledge sources and using limited, dubious opinions creates a team that doesn’t work.

The best decision-makers seek useful information and expertise, share ideas openly, evaluate options thoroughly, and make choices likely to create the best results for relevant stakeholders. Regarding the new virus, the need for effective teamwork is unmet.

NIH is just one of the many biases that hinder leaders and their teams. Furthermore, for any organization, the top person’s NIH syndrome and other biases cascade downward and across the system.

In positive contrast, the most effective governors and mayors consult with politicians of both parties plus public health professionals in their states, other states, national-level officials, and sometimes other countries. They seek input from the public, including small business people, educators, and mental health and social service agencies. And they acknowledge both the upside and downside consequences of ideas and plans while minimizing irrelevant in-group/out-group distinctions.

They often base these actions on lessons learned from past mistakes: not trusting experts and not focusing hard on evidence, proper decision-making processes, and timely results.

It should go without saying that the pandemic is not the president’s fault. But the terrible consequences of poor leadership are mounting. The results argue not for smaller government, but for good leadership from both the boss and many others below the boss. Such leaders throughout social systems must: 1) support wise top-down leadership, and 2) do a better job when top leaders ignore the best ideas, even if those that come from elsewhere.

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Thomas Bateman

Tom Bateman lives in Maine and Chicago and is professor emeritus, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.