Leadership and the American President

This week’s inauguration naturally prompts conversations about the centrality of presidential leadership and power. What kind of powers will the president-elect have, and how will he use them? They’re crucial questions, and the answers can tell us much about how the new president will respect human rights, both inside and outside the United States.

There have been many effective presidents whose approaches to leadership and the use of power have varied widely. Volumes have been written about the subject, but for me — a human rights activist as well as a psychiatrist who advises business and political leaders — what matters most is moral leadership, which emanates directly from the character and values of the leader.

American presidents wield unfathomable power. There is truth to Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But Robert Caro, the great biographer of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, offered this wise observation about power that I find even more psychologically useful: “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said … is that power always reveals.”

Presidential power does not grant presidential impunity. The use of presidential power informed by empathy, fairness, and justice can lead to moral leadership; the abuse of presidential power can lead to tyranny. Two of the most powerful and smart behaviors any U.S. president can exhibit are sorely lacking in the president-elect: judgment and restraint.

Just because he — alas it has so far always been a he — can do virtually anything he wants doesn’t mean that he should do anything he wants. How presidents treat those who are less fortunate, those with whom he disagrees, and those who are different in every possible meaning of the word — that’s the true measure of the leader. The president-elect, who has denigrated Mexicans, mocked the disabled, vilified his opponents, and whipped up hatred has shown plenty of recklessness and little leadership.

Over the past two decades, I’ve used my expertise to serve as a confidant to a diverse set of leaders, and I am often asked what I believe is the most dangerous trait in leaders. Frankly, there are many, but at the top of my list: the absence of a moral core that informs a leader’s thoughts and behaviors. Also high on my list of dangerous attributes is being impulsive: making decisions too quickly without the benefit of enough reliable information or without thinking through the potential for long term, unintended consequences. Impulsiveness can be dangerous for a corporate leader, catastrophic for a world leader.

Sometimes the best thing to do in what seems like an urgent situation is absolutely nothing in the moment, save for collecting one’s thoughts, gathering the best possible advice, and then being able to take more informed action. Impulsivity in a president, of all people, is terrifying.

There’s one more attribute in this admittedly incomplete list of dangerous leadership behaviors, all of which run counter to that highest form of moral leadership. It’s an attribute I call “pathological certainty.” Pathological certainty is simply the belief that one is always right. I’m not talking about self-confidence or a healthy ego, both of which are important for effective leadership. Rather pathological certainty is an absence of self-doubt, a failure to admit when one is wrong or apologize when one has harmed another, and hostility to taking advice from others with differing points of view.

Instead, real leadership and strength requires an ability to look outside oneself, question assumptions, admit missteps, and look to others for guidance. Those are qualities that make a leader great.

All of us in the human rights world will be closely watching the next president of the United States — as we have watched all presidents — to see what his power reveals about his character. There’s much room for pessimism when it comes to the incoming president. But once in power, as Caro said, we’ll hold our judgment to see what such incredible power reveals about the man and his capacity for moral leadership.

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