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Understanding the President’s Leadership Style

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Good fortune grew me up in Maine, sent me lawyering in Seattle, New York and Washington. Public service bounced me about the three branches, and military. Here is what I learned: Leadership styles differ markedly. Different is not bad. Different is just different, hard to recognize for those to whom it is unfamiliar.


When I look at the leadership style of Donald Trump, what I see is not what many see. Time as a litigator in New York tempers my view. What I see is not distressing, just an “in your face” New York City litigator’s approach to the world. And a “what the hell?” discomfiture with crusty, well-practiced politics. To the new president, Washington niceties are cobwebs on a summer porch, distracting, inconvenient, in the way of his higher purposes.

This approach is not in sync with button-down Washington. Nevertheless, the new president’s style gives me little concern. Diplomats complain that he is out of touch, Congress that he is chaotic. The press corps is beside themselves, counting his buoyancy something unanchored. He does not fit their narrative. Worse, he does not care about it. His willingness to mix it up seems kaleidoscopic tumbling; they are not sure if it is he, or they, who are tumbling.

Actually, it is none of these things. To me, the president’s take-it-to-them, suffer-no-fools, speak-your-mind style – which differs from the vice president’s personal reserve, reflection and solemnity of mood – is familiar. It is “of a type” – a certain New York City frame of mind, free-wheeling, with unbridled confidence in the future, at ease with bluntness and cold candor.

Unpredictable? Yes, to a degree – more from instinct than calculation – the way an ice hockey player or running back jukes and swerves to achieve his envisioned objective. New York businessmen and litigators, call them high-stakes relationship managers, think around corners, often spontaneously. They draw on a reservoir of practice, including mistakes, proven plays, and the art of recovery. Events can be ugly, but outcomes tend toward achievement.


To the diplomatic corps, this awkward, unrefined approach to problem solving, lofting many elements at once, engaging keys across the board with the showmanship of Liszt, but dissonance of Stravinsky, is unsettling. It imagines multiple possible outcomes, embraces life’s unpredictability, makes quick strokes while shooting rapids, and tosses out diplomatic game rules. They are not accustomed to this. Worse, if the rules have changed, their jobs may too. This creates wonder, worry, interest and terror.

To the congressional mind, the boxing match method of problem-solving is disheartening. Unlike diplomats, members of Congress can end up – unelected. Unpredictability is their enemy. If they cannot get a read on the president’s style, they fear falling behind, missing signals, getting stepped on. They may lose cadence, not regain it, and lose their election. So, the New York man of business is unnerving.

But the most scared, most unable to understand what has happened to their world, are the press. More than diplomats or congressional dependents, Washington’s press corps centers on unspoken understandings – patterns of politeness, understood pretenses, and long-established practices. Their future literally depends on these understandings.

Suddenly, they must fight for access, credibility, trust and even value in the public mind – having to defend their leading questions, unstated assumptions, political leanings, and profession’s veracity. This development is, you might imagine, terrifying.


Traditional political figures have seldom been so bold, distinguishing the First Amendment from collective press bias, making accountability a two-way street. Presidents are usually deferential, content with “honey not vinegar” access for favor. This one is not. He is not abiding the old understanding.

Suddenly, the norm is not the norm. Twitter, combined with in-your-face interviews, have changed all expectations, rules and roles, the whole game. If Ronald Reagan often went over the heads of the Washington media by radio and Oval Office addresses, this president has done him one better, conducting unfiltered morning tweets, unbridled dialogue in unruly press conferences, even rallies.

To the press, this enigma is a nemesis. Text books give little comfort. Theodore Roosevelt, before him Andrew Jackson, later Harry Truman offer a bit of context, but not much. They took populism and rode the wave, making waves. But they did not have Twitter, nor that New York litigator-like businessman frame of mind. TR had a little, which troubled orderly Wilson and establishment Taft no end. Jackson was about loyalty, Truman plain spoken.

What troubles the media is this: Trump is confounding not just their business norms, but the relevance of their business model. They have learned to feed a “narrative.” They identify a conclusion, collect facts to support it. The artifice matches editor and readership bias, often missing truth. Careers are built on the practice.

Now comes something horrible: A New York type who does not fit patterns, resists any consistent narrative, who was elected by unorganized masses, unexpectedly appoints a largely unassailable cabinet, is flanked by an articulate vice president and lovely wife, smart children and adorable grandchildren. And he takes the media to task daily.


Here is a president who relishes the battle, challenges assumptions, reshuffles the deck, puts them off balance, cannot be pegged. He seems not to need their favor, nor even seek it. Suddenly theirs is not the final word. Presidential tweets do not conform to the press cycle; there is no final word.

In time, this persistence and high-intensity everything, prizefighter’s indignant tenacity -- showy and real, this reflection of popular discontent, will become more understandable. The president’s make-them-earn-it, gloves-off approach to public dialogue will get familiar. His intolerance for small talk will become recognizable.

And yes, mistakes will be made. They come with governing in tough times, and when style is intense, engaged and unrelenting. The best kayaker confronts immovable rocks, must pivot and recover. The best fighter takes punches, misses some. This all unnerves the press. In time, they will track. Both sides will adjust to the new paradigm. They will learn to respect and understand each other.

There are only two real options. Stay the course, indignantly resisting change, pressing this president to square his corners, stay on sidewalks, abide old rules – or move with him. The new style takes nothing for granted, forces accountability, is ready for a daily fight. It cuts no slack to armchair critics, aims to get things done, seeks productivity, imagines taxpayer dollars come from humble pockets. It disdains inertia. The new reality – predictability based on un-narrated unpredictability.


In short, the staid ways of Washington have been – at least for a time – iced. They have met a take-it-to-them, suffer-no-fools, speak-your-mind leadership style, a litigating New Yorker. How relationships evolve is not clear, but they will. If something is lost, good things will also come of the shift. They already are. For many Americans, even if the style is unfamiliar, the emphasis on outcomes is welcome, and overdue. If this is the style it takes to get there, so be it.

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