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Give Us a King!: Leadership Theory for Election Season

Historic trends bring context to Trump’s confounding popularity.
Give Us a King!: Leadership Theory for Election Season
Darron Birgenheier / Flickr

Thousands of political pundits, commentators, writers, and bloggers have attempted to understand and explain Donald Trump’s appeal. As a registered Independent, I’ve struggled alongside them. What would make people—and 37 percent of evangelical Christians especially—overlook such bad behavior?

Judging by the dismissive attacks toward Trump supporters, one common explanation is to question their sanity or their character. While some share his fringe views, and some simply enjoy the Trump circus, I suspect Trump’s Christian backing—enough to earn him a spot among the top candidates in yesterday’s Iowa caucus—has less to do with contemptible biases and more to do with leadership theory.

“Leadership is like beauty,” wrote leadership expert Warren Bennis. “It’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.” Part of the reason leadership is so difficult to define is because, contrary to popular notions, what we look for in a leader changes and evolves. Since the early 20th century, scholars have marked several different approaches to leadership—each corresponding to people’s values and needs in a particular time.

Until the 1990s, our notion of ideal leadership always focused on the leader himself. People sought leaders who were “Great Men” with innate traits (early 20th century), who possessed a certain style (1948-1960) or skills (1955), or who matched their leadership with a given situation (1960s). In the 1990s, though, the focus began to shift back on the people being led. We looked for leaders who focused on what they could do for followers, corresponding with the rise of servant and transformational leadership styles.

Over the past century, we moved from looking for “Great Man,” commanding leaders like Winston Churchill to looking for transformational leaders like Oprah. During World War II, which claimed the lives of more than 60 million, people called for a “Great Man” leader like Winston Churchill, someone with the chutzpah and tenacity to stare down monsters like Hitler and Mussolini. After the war was over, so was the need for Churchill. Throughout America’s history, we’ve preferred leaders of virtue, but have also been quick to dismiss lapses in character, such as the many affairs of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent perjury and obstruction of justice.

But now, in the wake of the global financial crisis and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re looking for “authenticity.” Americans want someone real, someone relatable, someone trustworthy to guide us. In the 2008 election cycle, the little-known senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, capitalized on that desire. We passed over the more experienced candidate for a real man with a real story, a story he connected to the hope of America.

World events in the last few years have left us horrified and helpless. Last year brought a series of relentless tragedies: the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the deaths of more African American men by police, mass shootings in Charleston, Roseburg, Lafayette, Chattanooga, Planned Parenthood, and San Bernardino. The image of the drowned Kurdish boy on the Turkish coast ricocheted around the world, alerting us to the desperate plight of Syrian refugees. Daily we were deluged by the horrors of ISIS: the execution of educated women and Christians, sex slave auctions, and a massacre in Paris.

It’s a heavy burden for mortal souls to bear, and our politicians have seemed inept, incapable, or unwilling to end the heartache and blood loss. The first book of Samuel conveys a similarly dire situation. The prophet and judge Samuel, old and unable to travel, delegated his duties to his sons, who were inept and corrupt. They took bribes and thwarted justice while Israel faced the threat of enemy invasion.

The leaders of Israel asked Samuel for a king to protect them, not one “after God’s own heart,” but a king “like all the nations” (Sam. 8:20). Samuel warned what hard masters such kings make, for in the Ancient Near East, kings exercised nearly limitless power. But the Israelites persisted in their request for a king. And Samuel was right: Saul’s reign was a failure.

In times of crisis, we, like Israel, look for forceful, dominant leaders to make hard decisions and take appropriate action, and many researchers confirm that this type of leadership is the most effective type during a crisis.

Americans want a strong, straightforward leader to guide us through global crises and to provide solutions for a soft economy. It becomes easy for us mistake arrogance for strength and anti-PC rhetoric for authenticity. In the right circumstances, we overlook bad behavior for the promises of security, justice, and protection. We may even view it as evidence the independence of mind and stoicism of spirit we need in a leader.

Trust in Trump is deeply misguided, but rather than disparaging his supporters, we can seek to understand their motivations and their concerns with a sympathetic mind. The world is in crisis. We do need a strong leader who understands the issues and is not afraid to take appropriate action. We all know this much is true.

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