Far from Las Vegas: How a 1980s management book explains Trump

As the November 2020 presidential election nears, we’ve all watched Donald J. Trump run the White House and the Federal Government for 3½ years. As he lurches from crisis to crisis, gaffe to gaffe, false statement to false statement and high-level firing to high-level firing, Trump has provided grist for a million pundits commenting on his, ah, unusual management style.

Or maybe not all that unusual.

For my money, the best analysis of Trump’s m.o. comes from a book I read in the 1980s–long before becoming New to Las Vegas–that doesn’t even mention him and isn’t really about politics.

I am referring to Unstable at the Top: Inside the Troubled Organization, by prominent international management consultants/academics Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller. The pair combed through case histories of organizations both public and private run by clearly wacko leaders to define five varieties of neurotic, dysfunctional management: dramatic, suspicious, detached, depressive and compulsive.

Trump fits their description of the dramatic leader to a T, not unlike the delightfully off-balance letter on the cover, displayed nearby.

“The dramatic management style mixes aspects of two primary psychological orientations: the histrionic (theatrical, seductive, and showy) and the narcissistic (egotistical and grandiose),” Kets de Vries and Miller write.

Explaining at greater length:

Dramatic executives seem to crave attention and notoriety. They are inclined to exaggerate their talents and achievements and submit their actions to public scrutiny. They may act as self-appointed messiahs who adopt an emotional cause in order to draw more attention to themselves …

Dramatic executives often lack self-discipline. Their capacity for concentration tends to be limited, and they tire quickly of methodical plans. Instead, their need for constant stimulation results in sporadic innovations that replace organization. Not infrequently these are misguided and unproductive …

Though dramatic executive often seem generous, warm and charming, behind their facades may lurk an egotistical and vindictive streak. The textbook dramatic lacks sincerity and is inconsiderate of others. Empathy is often missing, and exploitativeness is common. Dramatic executives frequently take others for granted, causing relationships to be strained and unstable …

Dramatic executives fluctuate between high highs and low lows, overidealizing something one moment, devaluating it the next. If fantasies of unlimited power, success or brilliance are cut short, the dramatic leader often lets loose pent-up feelings of rage, overreacting to seemingly insignificant comments or events. Excessive displays of emotion, too, can become a trademark …

Hyperactive, impulsive, venturesome and dangerously uninhibited–these words describe the strategic characteristics of the dramatic firm. Strategy-makers (here usually only the CEO) live on hunches and quick impressions, skirting facts and detailed analyses, and ignoring both market changes and consumer demand. They address widely disparate projects in random fashion. Power is centralized, preserving the top executive’s prerogative to initiate bold ventures independent of anyone else’s stabilizing opinions. CEOs can eventually prove to be right in their bold action, but the reverse is, unfortunately, too often true.

Any of this ring a bell?

According to Kets de Vries and Miller, the impact of the dramatic leader on underlings is profound: “Subordinates of dramatic executives tend to idealize their charismatic leaders, ignoring their faults and exaggerating strengths. This idealization may derive from subordinates’ feelings of unworthiness … The dramatic executive expects to be ‘nourished; by subordinates with confirming–‘mirroring’–responses. Not only is conformity demanded, but praise and adulation as well.”

For some reason, this conjures up for me images of Mike Pence, Larry Kudlow, Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh McEnany.

The book even offers a checklist of questions if “you may wish to play detective with your own firm to determine whether it resembles any of our five dysfunctional types.” A yes to a majority of the questions for any one type suggests a hit. On the dramatic checklist there are 13 questions such as “does the CEO appear to be vain or egotistical?” and “is there suppression of dissent and contrary opinion by getting rid of ‘rebels’ or ignoring them?”

By my count, the Trump-run White House was affirmative on 10 of the 13 questions.

The edition of Unstable I have was published by New American Library in 1988. I first came across Unstable in researching excessive monitoring of lefties by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under its long-time dictatorial director, J. Edgar Hoover, who died in 1972.  Unstable calls him a prime example of the suspicious management style. Yet some of the characteristics cited seem also to be true of Trump: “hypersensitivity … coldness and lack of emotional expression … deep suspicious, distrust, and insistence on loyalty … vindictiveness and intimidation.”

Indeed, the book says it’s possible for a management style to be a blend of two or even more neurotic styles–or, hopefully more commonly, not neurotic at all.

In its introduction, Unstable says it proposes to show how these ill management styles can be “identified, combatted, or avoided.” But the 221-page book is a little light on the combatted and avoided fronts, except to imply that subordinates could leave.

Of course, those voters upset with Trump’s style have another option in November.

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So what's your take?

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