Do You Want a Savior?

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This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2017 McKnight-Kaney.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, liberals, in a state of shock, have been encouraging themselves to listen to Trump supporters. For example, after she said she was “depressed for a week,” a Hillary-supporting friend told me, “We need to be empathic.” 

This is laudable, but I urge all of us—liberal and conservative alike—to listen to ourselves—especially the part of us that longs for a savior.

I do not intend to use this blog as a political forum, but I do have something to say about Mr. Trump's portrayal of himself as The Great Deliverer and the eagerness of many—including myself at times—to be rescued.

Readers of my writing know my view that when change creates big discontinuities like those that led to this election’s outcome—globalization, offshoring of jobs, technological change, power shifts—everyone has three choices: to respond as a Victim, a Survivor, or a Navigator. I published a book awhile back that contains this phrase. (Victim, Survivor, or Navigator? Choosing a Response to Workplace Change. You can get the first chapter free here or learn more about the book here.)

This perspective maintains that within each of us is a person who longs to inhabit a perpetually safe world, one that offers unalloyed security, peacefulness, and ubiquitous tranquility. I call this the Victim. This aspect of our self renders us vulnerable to charismatic leaders who seem tough, willing to thwart convention on our behalf, and to deliver us from all ills.  

At his convention in the summer of 2016, Donald Trump did just this. At that convention, candidate Trump painted a portrait of the  world as one filled with danger and trouble. He said American cities were crime-ridden. Repeatedly, he cited statistics about crime rates that were exaggerated or outright lies. Worse, he said, “I alone can fix it.”

At an earlier time when many Americans were frightened and felt displaced, taken advantage of, and even scorned—during the Great Depression—they turned to another rich man to lead them, demanding that Franklin Roosevelt function as a savior, too.  

In his book about Roosevelt's first 100 days, Jonathan Alter, in The Defining Moment, notes that the word dictator “had been in the air for weeks” prior to Roosevelt taking office. Columnists, publishers, and others were telling Roosevelt that a “dictator” was exactly what the country needed. According to Alter, even Eleanor, more liberal even than her husband, “privately suggested that a ‘benevolent dictator’ might be what the country needed.” Instead, FDR, while remaining strong, took it upon himself to understand and work with the fear he recognized at the bottom of these demands. He knew these demands would not last and that the Republicans would fight him soon enough, which they did.

Let’s approach the Trump presidency with open eyes: we don’t need a savior, we need leaders who bring the best out in us, not the worst. We can do this if we come to this new era from Navigator mode, not the Victim or Survivor mode.

Related blog: “Trouble in Fishtown.”