The Trump Organization, Donald Trump’s private, family-run business, is well known to have operated at the fringes of what’s legal. Trump got his start in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of New York City real estate development, after all.
And so, as someone who pays close attention to how businesses operate, I was glued to the Feb. 27 testimony of former Trump “fixer” and personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who also served as an executive vice president of the Trump Organization.
While I learned little that was new, the testimony was still troubling – but not for what it said about the Trump Organization.
Rather, what I found most noteworthy is how the conduct attributed to Trump the businessman, however extreme, actually reflects actions and attitudes that are widespread within corporate America generally.
Putting leaders on a pedestal
It is well known that Trump runs his enterprises – both business and governmental – on loyalty, rather than, say, competence or performance.
What Cohen highlighted was just how debilitating, even destructive, the lionization of individual leaders and expectation of loyalty can be, whether we’re talking about Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Apple’s Steve Jobs.
Cohen said he was “mesmerized” by Trump, calling him a “giant” and an “icon.” Being around Trump was “intoxicating,” he said, and “everyone’s job at the Trump organization was to protect Mr. Trump.”
Cohen’s testimony revealed just how blinding that commitment to a mesmerizing individual became, leading him to replace judgment with worship. Cohen admitted both to lying to Congress and to falsifying campaign finance reports in the name of standing by his boss.
Cohen’s description may seem startling. But to someone who has extensively studied leadership in business organizations, I recognize an unfortunate pattern that dominates corporate America.
Corporations all too often fall into the trap of romanticizing leaders, often to the detriment of performance. By placing their own role front and center, CEOs enhance their self-esteem and justify their power and prodigious financial rewards.
And when employees attribute traits like heroism to their leaders, they tend to imbue them with the characteristics of charisma, strength and decisiveness. What gets submerged, unfortunately, is self-judgment and individual initiative.