Regardless of political persuasion, Donald Trump being elected President of the USA has given new life to the question…”What makes a good leader?”  It is a question that is often debated and rarely answered with 100% satisfaction.

And for those who are saddened by Donald Trump’s minimal ethical standards – he frequently lies, he favors retribution over forgiveness, he is disrespectful of all who disagree with him, he is an habitual philanderer , and more – the question of why people might follow him is even more vexing.  It is doubtful that even the most staunch Trump supporters would want him for a boss or would want someone like him to marry their child.

I would suggest that the answer is quite simple.  Donald Trump is NOT a leader at all.  And most of his defenders are NOT really supporting him or following him.  Most don’t trust him, believe in him, or even respect him.  In fact, to call him a leader is an insult to the thousands of hard-working, dedicated,  and selfless women and men who are true exemplars of great leadership.

Donald Trump is a GLADIATOR.   He is engaged in a BLOODSPORT.  He fights in an arena where he is CHEERED by an angry crowd who believe he is the most likely fighter to draw blood from his opponents.  The only goals is to slay the competition and bloody his blade.  The crowd has no expectation that the ruling class of modern Romans – Wall Street, Washington, and the Wealthy – will be slain by this out-of-control gladiator.  But, in what they see as a futile dynamic – a few have great power and the populace is increasingly ignored – Gladiator Trump becomes the fighter who gives them an outlet for their frustration.

If you can see Trump as Gladiator, the establishment as the Roman empire, and voters as an angry crowd desperate for a victory, even if meaningless…a lot of headlines begin to make sense.

Let’s assume that a core definition of “leadership” is that others are willing to follow.  This defines leadership as being quite different than “power” or “management” where a persona in authority might be able to force their will and decisions upon others – at least for a period of time.  It has been suggested that people choose to follow a leader based on specific “heuristics” 1  A heuristic is a framework – a mental short cut — that people use to make decisions – in the case of leadership, a framework as to whether they will follow a leader.  Three specific heuristics can be considered…

  • Fairness – If a leader is seen as “fair”, then a follower can be confident that she/he will not be abused, ignored, or exploited.
  • Self-Sacrifice – If a leader has been known to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others, then a follower can expect a leader to serve the greater good, which in turn is better for the follower as well.
  • Sameness 2 – If a leader is “like me” (same ethnicity, same religion, same life experiences, etc.), then a follower can assume that the leader would make decisions similar to the decisions that the follower would make in similar circumstances.

Relying upon these three heuristics, few people would ever choose to follow Trump.  He has never been concerned about fairness, only victory.  He constantly advocates for his own self-interest.  Few would argue that this billionaire is “like me”.

But, if you view Trump as a gladiator, one can imagine why bystanders and spectators would cheer his ability to bloody his sword.  Many in the electorate are angry at “Rome”.  They want a society and a government that cares (deeply) about their concerns.  And in the absence of that benevolent society, the masses demand a champion.  Someone who can draw blood, giving the public the satisfaction that they can make the establishment “bleed”.

On a larger scale, this definition starts to explain many of the dynamics of politics today.  Politics has become less and less a conclave of leaders working to better the world in which we live.  More and more, politics has become a public arena of violence.  The goal is simply to dominate the arena itself.  The media have become sports announcers stoking the flames of hysteria.

This definition may sound melancholy and hopeless to many.  But, it can serve as a useful guide on how to best influence the future of our societies, our countries, and our own personal lives.  If you take the Roman Arena example one step further, the right answer is to deflate the public’s thirst for bloodsport…to dampen the frustration behind the scenes.   How to do that?  Some suggestions for leadership beyond politics…


  • PLAY OUTSIDE THE ARENA: Leaders of industry, communities, churches, and other organizations must step up and fill the void where politics has failed.  Business leaders should begin to prioritize the wellbeing of their employees above—or at least equal – to the concerns of their owners.  Society’s leaders should promote the importance of fairness and self-sacrifice even when politics does not.  Religious leaders should push the ethics, rather than just the doctrine, of their faiths – working for every opportunity to help good triumph over evil.
  • PLAY NOT THE BLOODSPORT: When actively engaging in politics…all of us should resist the temptation to cheer the drawing of blood.  Clearly we should be free to criticize those actions and policies which we believe to be wrong.  But, we must also be the first to defend, befriend, and support our political opponents when they are criticized or attacked publicly solely because they are the opposition.  We should look for opportunities to compliment and even elevate those with whom we have disagreed.  We must actively diminish our differences and exploit the issues upon which we can agree.
  • PLAY FOR THE LONG TERM:  Victory in the arena is always about short term wins.  The laurels of an immediate win.  But, strong societies are about the long term.  Decisions that will stand in good times and bad.  Policies that will serve all segments of society – rich and poor, powerful and weak, majority and minority.  Institutions that smooth the hills and valleys of political differences.  If our choices are about short term gains, single generation benefits, or single demographic advantage…they should be questioned and replaced with long term focus, multi-decade benefits, and broad societal advantage.
  1. Annick Janson, Lester Levy, Sim B. Sitkin, E. Allan Lind;  European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.  (2008, 17 (2), 251-272); “Fairness and other leadership heuristics:  A four nation study”
  2. Janson, et. al. use the term “prototypicality” rather than “sameness”