Today I watched the Republican debate and Donald Trump made a disturbing but predictable comment pertaining to leadership. He was asked a question about earlier comments he had made pertaining to his view that if he was the president he would allow, even encourage, waterboarding and the torturing of terrorists. The moderator asked him how he would get the military to agree to this, particularly given that they have disavowed these practices. Trump responded by saying "I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about."
Trump is mistaking being a boss for the exercise of leadership. A boss uses their authority to get people to do what they want done, but that is not leadership. Our view of leadership is that it is an activity that mobilizes people to address tough problems and create what is needed to make progress. The fact that people are compliant is not an indicator of leadership.
Trump, along with many political candidates, particularly when running for office, thinks leadership is about prominence, dominance, and tribalizing. Prominence is about getting people to look to you because of your status, celebrity, or expertise ("Look to me, I have the answer"). Dominance is about using what power you have to get people to listen to you or do what you want done ("Listen to me, or else"). Tribalizing is about advancing the interests of your group or tribe, often at the expense of others. When you tribalize you tell your people, "Support me and I will fight and win our battles." These behaviors, when mixed with the currents of frustrating and irrational group dynamics, are very primal and lead people to bestow authority on a big man or woman to fix their problems, make their enemies go away, and take them to a promised land. This is very seductive. It is a form of seduction on the part of the individual who uses prominence, dominance, and tribalizing to get people to grant them formal authority. It can also be a form of seduction when it comes from the group. In other words, the group seduces the desired individual by telling them how great they are and reinforcing the notion that only he or she, because of their extraordinary capability or charisma, can be the group's leader.
It is natural for groups (organizations and nations) to want leaders who promise to make life better for all. But putting that burden exclusively on the shoulders of one individual, even when they want it, is bound to end in disappointment, even failure. Of course it is reasonable to hold authority figures accountable for what they say and do, but let us not mistake authority or being the boss for leadership. Saying to someone, "Your fired!" is not leadership, it is simply the expression of authority. And, let us not mistake chimpanzee politics (the competition for prominence and dominance commonly seen in the animal world) for leadership. Leadership must mean more than that. It should be seen as an intervention process into a group or complex system that orchestrates learning, problem solving, and creative work. That is not easy to do--it is difficult work. It is so difficult, that most people who claim to be leaders really haven't exercised much leadership at all. They are fooling themselves and fooling the people--and that is dangerous.