This is the best of times in American history. Perhaps the best time since the founding of our nation when we were led by the genius of Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and company. And we have the newly elected, tweeter-in-chief to thank for it. Thank God he was shredded, utterly humiliated as the buffoon he is by then-President Obama at the White House correspondents' dinner five years ago. Otherwise he might not have had the gall to mount his dumb-luck campaign that has led to this unanticipated yet potentially happy moment. Tens of millions of smart, committed people who previously had taken democracy for granted have awakened to their responsibility as citizens, shaking the ground beneath both political parties and forging a whole new array of political and social possibilities. Perhaps even more exciting than this awakening is the fact that Mr. Trump, almost single-handedly, has shattered the illusion, the myth that has engulfed our understanding of what leadership is and how we should expect to be led.
Yes, yes, keeping up with the mind-numbing flow of unnerving events issuing from the new administration has become exhausting, but that is only because we have failed to see the grand rending of the leadership veil that the Donald has affected, allowing us to see the logical absurdity of that most common approach to leading - transactionalism - which the new president employs with aplomb in the White House, the nation, and, purportedly, the world.
With Mr. Trump as its mad exemplar, transactional leadership is being carried to its logical and destructive extreme. As Roger Cohen recently noted in the New York Times, in Trump's approach to government "there is no governing, only transactional hollowness." With his narcissistic, empty-headed, utterly tireless bravado, Trump is stripping off the veneer of acceptability that for decades has carefully hidden the soulless and ultimately untenable reality of leading business, government, even education in many cases, from the transactional mindset.
It's true that our new president gives license to racists and bigots of every stripe. But Trump, by sheer dint of his clanging volume, is also making it impossible to pretend that the self-interested exchange is all that matters, should be all that matters. He is so closely tied to the belief that the transaction, "the deal," is all there is, his ugly shallowness necessarily sheds light on the deeper dysfunction of the approach.
The morality play that is the Trump presidency reveals, in fact, what we should have learned from the Great Recession: that leadership exclusively based on what I can get for me and mine, regardless of how we may pretty it up, no longer works in a world as complex and interrelated as ours; that leadership based on seeing followers as means rather than ends, that assumes the only basis for the leader-follower relationship is an exchange of mutual self-interest--money for labor, votes for policy--has become untenable. As a society, it seems, we had lived so long in the atmosphere of the glorified transaction that we had become numb to it, failing to see that it had become, in effect, absurd.
But then out of nowhere comes our hero, our savior, Donald J. Trump. God love him, for with his, crude, adolescent, vacuous effusions he is changing everything. He is shaking us out of the intellectually lazy assumptions that tolerated the transactional mandate. He is rapidly becoming the rallying point, the galvanizing force, the poster boy for something that is very nearly the opposite of the transactionalism he has come to personify, something that, in fact, has been slowly emerging for two decades or more in the world of leadership.
Led by women, minorities, millennials, and not a few middle-aged, balding white guys, a more humane way of thinking about leadership is taking hold, and Mr. Trump, with his endless hot air, is fueling this flame in ways he never could have imagined. Whether it's called Stake-holder Theory, Integral Leadership, Conscious Capitalism, B-corps, or any other number of new schools of thought, it boasts a very different basis for achieving sustainable success in the workplace, the community, the environment, and in government and politics.
The leaders who are adopting these new ways of understanding leadership have what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, James MacGregor Burns, would describe as a transforming quality to them. Unlike the Trumpian transactional approach where leaders seek to squeeze all that they can from their people (for themselves or the company or the party), these transforming leaders see their role as that of contribution--shaping, growing, enhancing the people in their charge. Their drive is to make their followers better, more effective, as employees, as constituents, as human beings. Above everything else, their job is their followers.
And let's clear something up from the get-go. These more humane leaders are as much pragmatist as they are idealist. They are not soft-headed bleeding hearts. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn--these are not business lightweights. Ohio's Republican governor, John Kasich, and California's Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, are not political hacks (and no one would ever accuse Brown of being soft and fuzzy). All five are shrewd, strategically savvy executives. They just have a greater capacity to see the big picture and have an increasing capacity for compassion.
And it's this expanded capacity to see and understand from a larger, often self-transcending perspective that gives this type of leader the critical edge on their competition, not because they're explicitly looking for a competitive edge, but because they are playing a fundamentally bigger game than most of their peers. And the byproduct is success, measurable, sustainable, repeatable success--consider California's economic trajectory under Brown or the market dominance of Salesforce under Benioff.
Ironically, perhaps, up until just recently we've seen more of the transforming approach in the business arena, because some leaders actually got the message from the Great Recession--driven as it was by a remarkably cynical version of transactionalism. But now with the emergence of Trump, politicians, particularly in the center and on the left, are beginning to join the emerging chorus that demands more from its leaders, who in turn expect more for (and from) their followers.
Something grand is afoot. Yes, in fact, this is one of the greatest of times to be alive, not in spite of the newly elected emperor sans his clothing, but because of him. For all the pain and fear he has generated in his jarring, still-brief tenure, he is simultaneously lighting a fire under the better aspects of our nature. Facts still matter (real facts!), democracy is finding a new footing, and leadership is being re-imagined in a courageous, bold new way. We've got quite a mountain still to climb, but the path up is increasingly clear and the journey has begun in earnest. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, indeed.