Could Trump’s brand of leadership become a problem across  generations of leaders?


Four things you might not know, and one you do

  1. We all know Trump is “yuugh” on branding and basks in his monarchy-impersonation of leadership. What we don’t know is how four years of it will impact leadership practices everywhere.
  2. Research over the last half-century confirms that the study of the intertwining of genetics and cultural is fundamental in the understanding of human behavior and leadership and that over time culture can affect an individual’s genetic traits through imitation and emulation.
    [1] Thereby having generational effects.
  3. Culture evolves more as a result of individual properties [behavior] and biology rather than from overarching cultural influences of the group.[2] In other words, strong individuals dominate the formation of culture.
  4. Different socially emulated cultural variants have different rates of survival.[3] Therefore, if Trump is in office for only four years perhaps – hopefully – exposure to his most flawed leadership traits will have a low survival rate among the millions of “apprentices” who will emulate him.
  5. Emulation and social learning involve “blind copying” of behaviors that humans observe and these include several bias: “success bias,” “status bias,” “homophily” and “conformist bias” (see below).[3]  These bias will accelerate and exacerbate the emulation of Trump’s leadership traits with obvious detrimental effects.

(8 minute read)

Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other. – Edmund Burke

Every parent knows the maxim that children learn by example, which is perhaps the most common demonstration of the power of emulation. As the old saw states: “Show me a screwed up kid and I’ll show you a screwed up parent.”

Michael Tomasello, professor of psychology and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has, in his developmental research, focused on “how children become cooperating members of cultural groups … [with] human skills and motivations for shared ‘intentionality.'” From their childhood, they adapt individual intentionality to align with group intentionality, which involves “blind copying of behavior,” [emulation], including these bias:[3]

  • “Success bias:” copying those perceived better off. (Trump’s glitter – without his tax returns – tells us he’s better off than us. And most CEO paydays tell us the same – Stumpf of Wells Fargo at $19 million/year).
  • “Status bias:” copying those with higher status. (Trump is at the top of the status ladder with the presidency. So was Stumpf at Wells Fargo).
  • “Homophily:” copying those most like ourselves. Millions of Americans are Trump wannabes, aspiring to say-whatever-the-hell-they-want, bully people, spew anger, lie to get ahead and fight if they don’t. They will copy his every trait.
  • “Conformist bias:” copying behaviors that more people are conforming to. (As Trump’s leadership “style” is emulated it will become more and more the norm, the accepted, the expected. It is already reinforcing the current approach in many C-suites that anything-goes and winning at all costs is the standard modus operandi).

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – and research confirms it.

It is genetic. Donald Trump’s leadership behavior emulates, in many ways, his father Fred, which in turn, is reflective of his grandfather Friedrich Trump.[4] (see earlier blog for summary). And Donald’s children have emulated much of his behavior. It’s rooted in “nature and nurture,” and, with rare exceptions, it’s unavoidable. Also, emulation reaches far beyond family. It includes peers, teachers, bosses and celebrities, and it’s both cause and effect in the formation of cultures and sub-cultures.

A cornerstone in leadership development

We all stand on the scaffolding of emulation and nowhere is it more pronounced, for better or worse, than in leadership (i.e., status and success bias). It is a primary reason most of today’s leaders remain stuck in old paradigms, constricted in organizations that are saturated with out-dated, 20th century thinking because most executives have emulated predecessors throughout their careers. Sydney Finkelstein of Tuck School of Business and faculty director of the Center for Leadership, Dartmouth College, illustrates the power of emulation in his book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). His research found that “Superbosses aren’t like other bosses, they follow a playbook all their own.” In part because they get off merry-go-rounds that emulate established paradigms and apply what Philip Kirby describes in his book The Process Mind as “new thoughtware.” Plus, these leaders likely emulated a “superboss” that they previously worked with.

“… the only way to survive as an organization, to thrive in the long term, is to generate and regenerate talent on a continuous basis … In one industry after another, I found a whole bunch of people who turned out to be tremendously good at spotting [and nurturing] great talent. I call them ‘superbosses.’” – Sydney Finkelstein

One of the many stories Finkelstein tells is about Bill Walsh the very successful NFL football coach. Walsh has been emulated perhaps more than any other coach and based on Finkelstein’s research he has “spawned the largest ‘tree of talent.'” Between 1975 and 2015, Walsh or his emulators appeared in 32 Superbowls, winning 17 of them. A year after Walsh’s death in 2008, coaches trained by him led 26 of the 32 NFL teams.[5]  The book is full of leadership stories that demonstrate the power of emulation.

For those bosses who are miles behind the superbosses, Finkelstein has another term. He calls them the “Bossy Bosses: outsize Donald Trump-style personalities who … lord it over their reports, standing as remote god-like figures, people to be admired but never, ever equaled.” Sounds hauntingly familiar … Didn’t America just hire a boss like that?

Trump’s leadership could affect three generations:

  1. Current leaders who rationalize and double-down on detrimental principles and practices that have been emulated for decades.
  2. The next generation of aspiring apprentices-in-waiting who see Trumpism as the way to the top.
  3. Young, future leaders who are just beginning to form their intentionality through emulation.

Emulation is a dominant factor in group behavior and culture creation and many behavioral scientists call it enculturation:

Enculturation is the process where the culture that is currently established teaches an individual the accepted norms and values of the culture or society where the individual lives. The individual can become an accepted member and fulfill the needed functions and roles of the group. Most importantly the individual knows and establishes a context of boundaries and accepted behavior that dictates what is acceptable and not acceptable within the framework of that society. It teaches the individual their role within society as well as what is accepted behavior within that society and lifestyle. – Conrad Phillip Kottak, American anthropologist, author of Window on Humanity.


Enculturation in the Oval Office

ovaloffThere is a “noblesse oblige” that comes with the Oval Office and this inherent responsibility has accompanied all forty-four of the previous occupants. Not all have lived up to the honor and privilege of the office and there are numerous listings of the worst and the best. On one list of the ten worst presidents in history, only one recent president is included – the 43rd president, George W. Bush, at number ten. Rankings vary according to who’s doing the ranking and other worst-lists include Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. However, number one on most of the worst-lists is James Buchanan, Jr., the 15th President (1857-1861). (FYI: Number one on the best-lists is usually George Washington or Abraham Lincoln).

So where will the 45th president, Donald J. Trump, land on the list?

There’s no doubt that Trump will bring his brand of leadership to the White House and it will have an impact on the next generation of leaders. (Paraphrasing from enculturation excerpt above) … How much will his behavior dictate what is acceptable and not acceptable within the framework of our society and what will it teach in terms of individual roles within our society?

Who can current and future leaders emulate?

dali-imagesExceptional leaders are an endangered species but the Dalai Lama is a beacon of spiritual, purposeful, ethical and moral leadership. And yet, this week he seemed to give Trump a pass.

“I feel during the election, the candidate has more freedom to express. Now once they (are) elected, having the responsibility, then they have to carry their co-operation, their work, according (to) reality … So I have no worries.”

His Holiness is obviously is not aware of Donald Trump’s view of “reality,” let alone his psychological makeup and behavioral history. Granted the Dalai Lama does live a reclusive life but he is an informed, worldly leader who seems to be approaching Trump’s leadership responsibilities with either passive optimism or a gentle naiveté. And yet, every parent knows that with any adolescent both of these approaches can be disastrous. Or dare I interpret that the Dalai Lama is being slightly political due to a mix of issues related to Tibetan exiles, Mongolia and China? This week China cancelled a visit by the Dalai Lama as well as talks with Mongolia regarding a $4.2 billion dollar loan. Perhaps his Holiness is emulating politics, anticipating that if the China talks fall through there is value in the Trump brand ascending to the facades of Tibetan hotels. After all, it’s working for neighbors like India and Turkey … just wondering?

We will begin to see the effects of emulating Trump sooner than we like, but our children and grandchildren will be the ones who have to live through the long-term, generational outcomes. If Trump’s leadership traits begin to infiltrate the culture of leadership it will, according to research, “leak” into the genes of future generational leaders.

Culture and biology are inextricably linked.


In two books, Culture and the Evolutionary Process, (1985) and Not By Genes Alone (2004), Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd set out the cultural bias that combine with genetic evolutionary factors to influence human behavior and social learning. They go beyond the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate, “drawing on anthropology, political science, sociology and economics to show that culture and biology are inextricably linked.”

Richerson and Boyd examine the question of how culture is generated and whether the individual or group dominates in influencing culture. “Culture is a part of human biology, as much a part as bipedal locomotion or thick enamel on our molars … our bodies play a fundamental role in how we learn our cultures and why we prefer some ideas to others.”[6] In short, culture and biology are intertwined and individual influence can dominate a group, particularly in the case of an authoritative leader with ideas and behavior that we have a homophily bias for (“prefer”) and that we “blind copy.” Emulation propagates the type of leadership that evolves in a culture. Friedrich Nietzsche called it, “Eternal recurrence” – we humans “remain eternally the same, despite the changes of generations and of the history of nations.”

This never-ending conflict between selfish individual behavior and altruistic group behavior has, so far, been ‘won’ by the selfish individual. – E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson in The Social Conquest of Earth addresses a similar question: Can the evolutionary good of the group supersede the genetically coded selfishness of individual leaders? (see earlier blog: Are Stumpf and Trump biologically connected?). Wilson claims: “Natural selection at the individual level has prevailed throughout the history of life … Group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology of the group members.” Wilson further states: “… the genetic, selfish strength of the individual” trumps (my word, my pun) … altruistic group influence.”

Perhaps the Dalai Lama should read E. O. Wilson.

Coming soon to a leader near you … the Trump leadership brand

President-elect Trump is about to become a “yuugh” part of our culture – a big fish in the White House fishbowl – and his leadership will be emulated, “blind copied,” consciously and subconsciously, by millions, even if they are smarter than a fifth grader. In fact, if fifth graders begin to emulate him, it will become a generational contagion – a “yuugh” problem.

We have already seen that the group around Trump is not “exceptionally powerful to relax the grip” he has on his immediate culture, driven by his individual intentionality. Therefore, emulation through the people who are genetically linked (Trump family), and those not genetically linked but proximate in cultural context, will assuredly extend the Trump brand of leadership. That will undermine the potential for a generation of new leaders to be anchored in the higher purpose of advancing the whole group, not just the leadership. Never doubt that it will take a generation to bring the foundational change we desperately need – tens-of-thousands, millions – of “superbosses” who work from a better, smarter, wiser playbook. Leaders who realize that the power and intentionality of the group must supersede the power of individual, self-centered intentionality – in all facets of society. The next generation of leaders must be the antithesis of the Trump brand and most of what we have emulated for generations.

Maybe Trump will be both the pathogen and the antidote?

If, in the early stages of Trump leadership, the group sees serious side effects – toxic to common sense, decency, civility, integrity, trust – it could immunize people against contamination and negate the natural human bias toward emulation. Only that or impeachment will stop proliferation. Unless, as Wilson posits, “Group selection [is] exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior….” In this case, “the group” must be led by men and women of unwavering principles, who stand to their full height and do what’s right rather than what’s politically and individually expedient. Unfortunately, such leaders are few and far between.

Soon we will find out who, if any, have the genetic biology and cultural indoctrination to be “exceptionally powerful” in not succumbing to the grip of an autocratic individual, who is temporarily perched in the world’s most powerful position of leadership.

Emulate at your own peril; future generations depend on it.


  1. Richerson, P.J. and R. Boyd. 2001. Culture is Part of Human Biology: Why the Superorganic Concept Serves the Human Sciences Badly. In Science Studies: Probing the Dynamics of Scientific Knowledge, edited by S. Maasen and M. Winterhager, Ed. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2001
  2. The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson, Chapter 6, p. 55
  3. Studies in the Philosophy of Biology, Ayala & Dobzhansky (1974); Chapter 9, pp. 139-161 by Campbell, D. T. (1965): “Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution”. Social Change in Developing Areas, a Reinterpretation of Evolutionary Theory.
  4. The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston, Introduction & Chapter 1, (2016) Melville House Publishing.
  5. Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016) by Finkelstein, Sydney, Introduction
  6. Richerson, P.J. and R. Boyd. 2001. Culture is Part of Human Biology: Why the Superorganic Concept Serves the Human Sciences Badly, p. 4