Howes: Trump’s trash-talking fails test of leadership

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In case you haven’t heard, Donald Trump is a very rich CEO-turned-reality show star.

Yet the declared Republican presidential candidate is failing a test many fellow CEOs learned a long time ago: Successful leadership is grounded in positive vision, action and respect, not bragging, generalization and negative attacks on the competition that say more about the attacker than his intended target.

Whatever damage Trump’s infantile broadside on Sen. John McCain’s captivity in Vietnam does to his (for now) poll-leading campaign — and it’s likely to be considerable — vitriol, cheap shots and utter gracelessness expose weakness in any would-be aspirant to the White House.

Trump said over the weekend that McCain, the Arizona Republican who spent five-plus years as a prisoner of war, is “not a war hero.” He lambasts his Republican rivals as “failed politicians.” He shows scant reverence for the Christian faith rooted deeply in the GOP base, all of it underscoring just how poor a celebrated CEO’s political instincts can be.

Impugning political rivals is not unique to Trump, of course. It’s a reflection of the crude celebrity Zeitgeist in the ages of Obama and the Internet. It’s a marker of the fevered swamps on both the left and the right, empowered by cable TV, social media, the blogosphere and a metastasizing incivility.

Few places should understand better how pointless such hectoring is than Michigan and Detroit. Here multiple turnarounds through bankruptcy and restructuring were engineered by CEOs, a governor and a mayor whose styles are the antithesis of the bombast dispensed by Trump and cheered by his apologists on the right.

Here, legacies of confrontation and mistrust, ill-will and regional animosity, formed the infrastructure that leaders in management and labor, government and the private sector, used to help navigate reckonings decades in the making. None denied the history existed, because they couldn’t.

Instead, they restrained rhetoric in a town long defined by its loud culture of blame and scapegoating. They used inescapable evidence of failure, the threat and reality of federal bankruptcy and the knowledge of bad, old habits to inform new directions for the future — and it worked, in Detroit of all places.

The Donald they were not. Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally preferred to avoid “leaning on the past,” as he put it often. He managed by repeatedly enunciating a single, clear turnaround strategy that he and his team stress-tested against changing reality every Thursday.

Publicly trash General Motors Co., the beneficiary of a federally financed Chapter 11 bankruptcy? Not Mulally. Order mass firings to speed change, a tactic Trump parlayed into a lucrative TV career? Not Mulally, whose record of cashiering top executives during his tenure could be toted on a single hand.

Gov. Rick Snyder, a CEO and venture capitalist before becoming governor in 2011, practices what he calls “relentless positive action.” Corny as it sounds, the generally non-partisan approach helps his administration tackle problems his predecessors — Democrat and Republican — fumbled or failed to attack at all.

The cost is not paid in civility, a foreign concept to the political instincts of Trump. It’s paid in partisan frustration, expressed by fellow Republicans and supporters in the business community who wish the governor would be more feared in both houses of the GOP-controlled Legislature. Not likely.

Then there’s Mayor Mike Duggan. CEO of Detroit Medical Center before his improbable election to the city’s top job, the former prosecutor and Wayne County deputy possesses a knack for problem-solving that even a Trump might admire if he bothered to take a look.

Duggan focuses on results and pushes his team to get there, a philosophy he honed leading the turnaround of DMC. He demands accountability even as he steadily centralizes the power of the city bureaucracy into an apparatus he commands.

The instinct of arguably the most powerful Democrat in Michigan is to be less overtly partisan and more intentionally pragmatic — a posture more likely to elicit cooperation from Republicans in Lansing who can help Detroit its next chapter.

The alleged truth-telling practiced by Trump has limits in the real world where politics, business and painful restructuring intersect. Straight talk has its place in a time of so much deliberate deception. But if the price is that people stop listening, much less cooperating, what’s the point?

Attention, mostly.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at