There’s a HUGE Problem with Donald Trump’s Outdated and Dangerous Definition of “Leadership”


I generally avoid politics here on the blog… In October, I broached the subject when I blogged about a company that uses Lean principles to make Donald Trump hats in New Jersey (and interviewed the owner of the company), but that was during a time when Trump seemed like a novelty or fringe candidate. It might be a “third rail” to even bring him up… but I'll limit my remarks to one particular context – his view of “leadership.”

As reported by FORTUNE and other publications, Trump said the following on March 3, when asked about his earlier comments about wanting the military to follow orders that violate international law and treaties:

“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.”

No. Leadership is not about telling people what to do. What Trump calls “leadership” is an outdated strategy, the “command-and-control” model. That's a model that many call “Taylorist” — a system where the boss thinks and gives orders, and the workers just keep quiet and follow orders. The FORTUNE writer writes that Trump's “retro style is not set up for today's complex world.”

You can hear Trump's own words:

When I started at GM in 1995, it was a command and control culture — and everybody suffered: customers, employees, and shareholders.

But, some managers got to yell and scream at others, acting like the tough guy. But, employees (including me) laughed at them behind their backs. Things didn't start turning around at that plant until we got a new plant manager who had learned the Toyota style of leadership at NUMMI.

The Military is Moving Away from “Command and Control”

Command and control” is associated with the military, but even they are moving away from that model, which you'll know if you've also read the great book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The military has learned that, in this day and age when fighting non-traditional enemies, the military needs to put more decision-making capabilities in the troops and lower-level leaders. Command and control is too slow, and decisions are too often wrong when made by leaders who are disconnected from the front lines.

I want our military officers and soldiers to speak up and question (and even disobey) illegal or immoral orders. Trump wants people to do as he commands. That's not how the U.S. Presidency works. The military swears allegiance to the Constitution, not the President.

I want employees to speak up at work when they think the boss is wrong, and I want leaders to ask employees for input into decisions, engaging them in a “Kaizen” approach of continuous improvement.

Many aspects of Team of Teams remind me of Lean thinking and the Toyota Production System. Command and control is outdated (forgive the name-dropping here, but the late Stephen Covey said as much when I interviewed him a few years back). As it says in this book summary:

“McChrystal argues that most organizations–and the resulting leadership styles–resemble the command-and-control structure popularized by Frederick Winslow Taylor at the turn of the twentieth century. This “sturdy architecture” works well when there's a known and relatively stable set of variables.

But it wasn't working for the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in the mid-2000s as they fought the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. To combat the threats there, McChrystal needed a resilient organization that would respond rapidly to constantly shifting environments. He needed a “team of teams” and that would require:

1) Restructuring from the ground up based on extremely transparent information sharing–a concept he calls shared consciousness

2) Decentralizing decision-making authority–a concept he calls empowered execution”

Command and control might have worked fine in the slow-moving, less competitive business world of the mid-20th century. Toyota and other companies have shown us that a more engaged workforce is the key to success. The GM model was very authoritarian. Managers gave orders, and employees weren't supposed to question them. That was a failed strategy.

Trump would probably say, “That was how I ran my businesses, and I am very, very rich, that I can tell you.” OK, but some of his businesses failed and went bankrupt. It's a hypothesis that can never be proven, but maybe Trump would be more rich if he had a more modern leadership style?

Hear Mark read this post (subscribe to the podcast):

Lean is not “Command and Control”

As I blogged about, the NEJM recently published an editorial where the authors confused Lean with top-down command-and-control leadership.

Lean is an evolution from command and control thinking. Henry Ford used to complain, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Toyota leaders talk about TPS being not just the Toyota Production system, but also the “Thinking Production System.”

Editor's Note: Ford was not talking about the SIZE of anybody's hands… or whatever.

John Shook of the Lean Enterprise Institute speaks eloquently about how Lean and the Toyota Production System are neither fully top-down nor fully bottom-up approaches. It's a hybrid approach, where executives need to set strategy and goals (with input from those lower in the organization) and ideas about how to improve generally come in a more bottom-up way from employees and lower-level managers.

If you re-visit Taiichi Ohno's classic book The Toyota Production Systemhe makes it quite clear that TPS is not a dictatorial approach. He describes a business as a human body, not a machine:

“A business organization is like the human body… At Toyota, we began to think about how to install an autonomic nervous system in our own rapidly growing business organization. In our production plant, an autonomic nerve means making judgments at the lowest possible level… The plant should be a place where such judgments can be made by workers autonomously.”

Decision-making is generally pushed down to the lowest level possible in a Lean culture. Ohno continues:

“Plans change very easily. Worldly affairs do not always go according to plan and [production] orders have to change rapidly in response to changes in circumstances. If one sticks to the idea that, once set, a [production] plan should not be changed, a business cannot exist for long.”

“I think a business should have reflexes that can respond instantly and smoothly to small changes in the plan without having to go to the brain… The larger a business, the better reflexes it needs.”

This sounds like the Team of Teams approach, doesn't it?

Is “Command and Control” Here to Stay?

To me, it's sad, dysfunctional, and counterproductive that “command and control” leadership is still too prevalent today in different types of organizations, including in healthcare. Command and control, combined with a “name, blame, and shame” culture isn't just demoralizing… it causes harm to patients. Patients deserve better. Employees deserve better leadership.

How common is that style of “leadership” in your organization? “Do this because I said so I'm the boss” leadership. What harm does it cause? Do you see hope in ridding our organizations of that mindset?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Sometimes I think good leadership that produces high-performing teams is about leading a “Team of leaders.” Those leaders are empowered to do the work, make decisions, make recommendations, and make formal and informal relationships necessary to get the work done. Individually they are respected for their expertise and expected to use it.

  2. Unfortunately, “command and control” is both iconic and valued by society due to its visibility (people take notice) and the perception that it delivers (good) results. The business press regularly highlights “command and control” leaders but provides much less coverage for other approaches to leadership. Hybrid, servant leadership, etc., are seen as quirky and not universally applicable in the way that “command and control” is.

    “Command and control” carries with it more risk now than ever because thinking, decisions, movement, action, etc., do not occur among followers until one person – the boss – gives the command. And once the command is given, then the leader controls in ways that slow things down. In other words, “command and control” introduces delays (queues) in all processes. The introduction of abnormal conditions (queues) leads to defects. It therefore impairs the “autonomic nervous system” and slows down organizational reflexes.

    Given that we live in a faster moving world now – a trend that is likely to continue in the future – “command and control” is distinctly unsuitable and will put businesses behind their competition.

    Please allow modicum of leeway to self-promote: My book Speed Leadership presents a new method of leadership specifically for rapidly changing times, in which leaders provide followers what they need, in the amount needed, when it is needed. It was written for both Lean and non-Lean audiences, and represents my ideas on how to rid organizations of that mindset.

  3. Trump loves to criticize China… but there’s one way in which China will struggle to compete in a modern world, especially one where their labor costs have gone up:

    China’s Manufacturing Challenge: Going Lean

    Why will China struggle to adopt Lean manufacturing practices? The article says:

    — Unstructured management processes that create complex organizational structures, resulting in unclear expectations and poor accountability, which can lead to slow reactions to problems.
    — Lack of process discipline, meaning that success gets measured by getting things done by whatever means necessary, which can lead to inconsistent standards.
    — Weak problem-solving skills on the parts of top-down managers who make all the decisions and who typically address symptoms rather than the root causes of serious issues.
    — Weak and reactive quality systems that lead to heavy reliance on layers of manual inspection and sorting and on redoing work. It is better to improve process capabilities and get it right the first time.

    Does this actually also describe many American organizations… including health systems?

  4. I think the commend and control style of leadership is prevalent in the security & service industry. Employees are not even allowed to think outside the box, so to speak.

    Even though they are told that their input is valuable, it’s just that double standard.

  5. Comment from LinkedIn:

    Jac Higgins, CHFP: You’re absolutely right Mark. I served in the 8th Inf. Division when Colin Powell was at 5th Corps, so we learned first-hand how he led. The second of his Leadership Lessons is “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

    Gen. Powell intentionally sought out subordinates who would point out the errors in his decisions so he could get them right prior to execution.

  6. Love your post Mark. Just had a conversation today with an event team about leadership. We can’t mistake dictating with leadership. We need people’s brains at work; And brains not fertilized or used will atrophy. This entire process is a study on models of leadership. It’s sad how so many are fooled.

  7. Donald Trump is not fit to be a leader. He is fit to be a money maker and a trader, but not a leader. A leader makes his followers or his competitors feel powerful, he doesnt do that. He thinks if he acts like god people will follow him. This will never happen.

  8. As many have stated here and elsewhere, C&C is still rampant in every corner of our culture – not just business or government. If we did an RCA on this I believe a few of the primary roots would be ego and greed. Until leaders rid these of themselves first, their respective culture won’t change. The US is management rich and leadership poor!

  9. Trump has the wrong definition of leadership and now it turns out not to be true, even. People don’t do what Trump says…

    Meet The People In Trump’s Orbit Who The Mueller Report Says Ignored His Orders

    “The more-than-400-page report names 10 onetime close aides or other government officials who refused to carry out requests Trump made that may have violated the law.

    The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mueller wrote on Page 158 of the report.”

    The WSJ says the same was true in the private sector:

    Mueller Report Describes a Businessman President Indifferent to Facts, Unwilling to Take on Tough Tasks

    “At the Trump Organization, Mr. Trump was known for controversial orders that aides sought to avoid without directly rebuffing the requests. When Mr. Trump summoned aides in 2009 and asked them to persuade Michael Cohen, then an executive at the company, to resign, for example, they avoided the matter until Mr. Trump eventually dropped it.”


    “Like Mr. Dearborn, most aides rarely tell Mr. Trump no, the report found, instead opting not to follow through on his orders.”


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