Dear Donald –
Despite all views to the contrary, you seem to me to be an incredibly insecure man. Clearly, your vanity and ego can’t be denied, but it has often been my experience that someone seeking as much outside validation as you do on a daily basis is, at his core, truly uncertain of himself. Intelligent and secure men and women don’t lash out at any perceived slights, nor do they complain about being treated unfairly at every negative headline. They’re certain enough in themselves and their convictions to move past it and seek the next step.
When you were traveling across the country campaigning, this insecurity manifested itself in your near constant need for large rallies. To be fair, you were able to fill auditorium after auditorium, but you never seemed at ease working in small groups, and work and campaigning away from the cameras was anathema to you. This seems to have carried forward, with your obsession with how many people attended the inauguration. In some ways, a man as insecure as you is fairly easy to predict. He will, in all instances, seek to avoid embarrassment and then, when possible, seek praise from as many people as possible.
At many points over the last year and a half, you sought to avoid embarrassment by simply lying about the situation, even if such lies could be simply and easily rooted out and shown to you. If we refused to acknowledge the reality of the past, it becomes impossible to reframe any story line in your own favor. “I never said that.” “That’s not what happened.” Alternative facts are great for this. For you, embarrassment is the worst kind of failure. Unfortunately, that fear of embarrassment can lead you down some paths far more dangerous than little white lies. They can lead to committing to clearly wrongheaded plans simply to avoid having to back track a prior statement or promise.
There are times in this world when we commit to doing something and, when all the facts are in, we decide that it’s ultimately not the best course of action. That is fine – for most of us. For those with a heightened sense of embarrassment, even the slightest prospect that someone might point out you were wrong leads to a rigidity of thought and action that is incredibly dangerous given your new career. When I was in college, I had a professor who focused on the psychological profiles of leadership. One day, there were a number of military officers leaving her office before class. When we asked what they were doing, she explained that the Pentagon had come to consult with her on a psychological profile of Kim Jong-Il, then the North Korean leader. She explained that, in her estimation, Kim was a remarkably insecure man who needed constant outside validation and, if his back were ever truly against the wall, would lash out irrationally to save face, even if it meant destroying his people and himself in the process. Profiles like these, in part, led to the strategy of allowing Kim to continue his bluster and braggadocio while more subtle steps were taken to undermine and isolate the North Korean leader. It was thought that direct confrontation would be the option least likely to yield success. Kim had to be provided a way out at all times, in particular because of the threat of nuclear weaponry.
You see, deep insecurity becomes particularly pernicious when combined with someone, like you, who feels as though overt displays of dominance are the key to success. If you think you have been slighted or disrespected, you tend to deny the underlying truth of the issue and lash out to prove your dominance and therefore, in your mind, your ultimate correctness. True leaders do not behave this way. They understand that, at our core, we are all humans who have lapses in judgment. Usually, by the time someone rises to your level, they have learned that they are rely the expert on every topic, and others can, and should, contribute to the success of any given project. However, that level of humility is typically gained through years of working your way up, with people above you with more experience to teach you how things work and to point out the faults in your behavior or judgment without silencing your drive for improvement. Unfortunately, you, by virtue of your birth and no particular innate talent, started at the top, always with the power to dismiss anyone who questioned your authority and approach.
Sadly, this history, when combined with your insecurity and need for power, led to a worldview in which you constantly feel the need to be the smartest person in the room, which is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Even for those of us with years of experience in a particular field, we are rarely the experts in the room on every topic. For someone, like you, who has no experience in the public sector or policy, it is particularly difficult. Perhaps that is why so many of your job offers since you started have been made to people with very little experience in their respective fields. Perhaps that is why all of your hires seem to have a motivation to diminish the areas under their purviews, to reduce the number of people with experience and understanding of the topics at hand. After all, if there are no experts, there’s no one to tell you that you’re wrong. It is a truly sad state of affairs, but I believe that your ego may, in fact, demand it.
Your sensitive ego is even more concerning in light of the incontrovertible truth that Russian actors intervened in the election to support your candidacy. As a result, it calls into question the legitimacy of the outcome and, therefore, you as a leader. You seem to have a particularly deep insecurity about this question, which is undoubtedly ironic given your years-long attempt to question the legitimacy of your predecessor. However here, unlike before, the allegations have a basis in reality and are not rooted in racism or xenophobia. True questions about your legitimacy are grounded in a respect for our democratic institutions. As a result, people of strong character and conviction can speak out about the importance of core principles that are shared by all Americans and, in so doing, undermine you. Your insecurities don’t allow you to let these comments pass you by. You could easily agree that the Russian intervention is problematic and should be stopped, but you are afraid of the follow-up – should you be here at all? I think this question haunts you at night and will deeply transform how you lead over the next few years, forcing your mark onto the world to prove that you belong. It will, sadly, be to all of our detriment, but that is who you are. You cannot stand embarrassment, and your deep-seated fear is, and always has been, that everyone knows you’re a phony.
If you could, in fact, set aside that ego for but a moment, I can let you in on a secret – no great leader has ever been the expert on everything, even when they appeared to be. They relied heavily on various underlings who knew what they were doing and provided enough detail to the boss to make them look knowledgeable. There are good, intelligent people working for you now and, if you lean on them, they can accomplish, to a certain degree, what you want and they will gladly let you take the credit. Granted, there may be struggles along the way as they try to convince you of other policy options and you may have to actually admit ignorance of some facts and be briefed but, at the end of the day, the accomplished public servants working for you will gladly hand you a product that you can claim as your own success. You just need to demonstrate some humility and allow alternative approaches to be discussed and entertained. Who knows? You could learn something and come out with an option that you like better than your original. However, I’m not so sure that you’re willing to demonstrate the requisite humility to take that course of action.
Another approach, which you seem to be learning quickly, is to remain incredibly vague about all of your plans. If you don’t make any firm commitments to any particular course of action, you can never be embarrassed for failure to follow through. We saw this in action when you tweeted about the House majority’s attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Your statement was a master stroke in non-commitment, and you were handsomely rewarded for the effort. You both argued the Office’s actions were unfair and it should be reorganized and that the majority had misprioritized the redesign. When the majority backed off from the change, you were lauded as having pressured them into the change. If they had gone ahead, your statement would have been seen as support for the effort while still providing an admonishment for the order in which they did it. Unfortunately, this approach will only work if you don’t have a preferred outcome. If you want to merely be a figurehead (and I know about 66million people who would be happy with that outcome), this approach would work for you. However, I don’t think your desire for power and your need for overt demonstrations of strength will allow you to do this either.
It seems that we’re stuck with your personality, warts and all. I just hope that, as time goes on, you learn to trust the counsel of actual experts and grow a thicker skin, even if you can’t manage the humility part. Unfortunately, all of our futures may depend on it.