“Let us most carefully avoid pride, disdain and arrogance.” – Cicero.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3
“I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not.” – Donald Trump.
Shortly before the presidential election last year, we asked three leading scholars from the fields of business, psychology and philosophy to reflect on humility and the presidency.
Both candidates at that point would have rated high by any measure of narcissism, arrogance or paranoia.
Hillary Clinton demeaned the basic humanity of the “deplorables” that she said made up half of her opponent’s supporters. She was also already planning her new administration before the vote.
Donald Trump, who eked out a victory, treaded on immigrants and racial, ethnic and religious minorities. All the while boldly proclaiming only he, a reality TV star with no government experience, could “make America great again.”
The hope held out then by the scholars was that should Trump be successful, the demands of the job would tone down his divisive rhetoric. And that he would adopt the characteristics of humility - being other-focused, able to appreciate the strengths of others, cognizant of his own limitations and open to criticism and working with others – that are critical to being an effective leader of a diverse democracy.
So how is Trump doing, we asked in recent follow-up conversations.
The consensus: Not so good.
· “It’s actually worse than we were predicting,” said Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center at Duke University. “When people are in charge of things, and they are so sure they know what they are doing from the outset that they don’t consult people who really know what they are doing, and they stay entrenched in their own views despite all kinds of evidence that goes against what they think they ought to do, I think it has actually portrayed the downsides and hazards of a lack of humility far more starkly than I would have imagined.”
· Most people would adapt to meet the demands of a challenging new situation, said Biola University psychology professor Peter Hill, past president of Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association. “You would think becoming president of the United States and just simply the immensity of that job would have that effect upon a person. But it sure doesn’t seem to have it upon him. … I’m probably more discouraged than I was even soon after the election.”
· Brad Owens, associate professor of business ethics at Brigham Young University, “harbored a hope inside that somehow” Trump would break the trend of narcissistic leaders putting their own need for affirmation ahead of the good of the organization. But Trump, it seems, cannot give up his inflated sense of self. And that matters for a businessman-turned-world leader, noted Owens, a leading researcher on the impact of leader humility on individuals and organizations. “Human lives are at stake.”
Why Trump has eschewed humility is in some ways a mystery. It is not as if his current approach has been working out well for him.
He has had historically low approval ratings and a string of legislative failures until the approval last month of a major tax bill.
But there is little evidence of humility in victory or defeat. He continues to take the term bully pulpit literally, attacking anyone who disagrees with him while lavishing praise on himself and promoting his personal and business interests.
It is a way of operating for many narcissists to not take responsibility for mistakes, but to offload criticism on to others. It serves as a type of coping mechanism to preserve their self-image, Owens noted.
But running a country takes a chief executive who is willing to gather the best people available, who welcomes counsel that challenges preconceived notions, who leads by example in recognizing personal limitations and who is open to new ideas and ways of working with others in the best interests of the nation, research shows.
So what can be done to promote humility in a Trump presidency?
There is no clear answer.
Trump himself has shown few signs he will change, the scholars noted.
The president appears to be a little more cautious after being “slapped enough times” by public disapproval and political defeats. But it is hard to imagine that even next year at this time there will be any dramatic changes in his political arrogance and lack of humility, Leary said.
If there’s been any shift by Trump toward greater humility and self-examination, “it’s only been very minor in my estimation,” Hill said.
Hoping for the system to correct itself may be futile.
Politicians and extremists on both sides have adopted polarizing rhetoric designed to reinforce their bases over civil conversation and bipartisanship.
Trump is not alone in his lack of humility. The psychic benefits – and media attention - of punches landed rather than progress made crosses ideological borders.
“When we tend to vilify the other, usually it’s because we’re getting very rewarded within our group,” Hill noted. “This is one of the things I find very disturbing about politics in D.C.”
The humility scholars noted in their analysis before the election that change will most likely come from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
What may be needed, Leary said recently, is a public campaign looking down on selfishness, self-preoccupation and arrogance and promoting respectful dialogue.
In this age of partisan politics, he said, “We tend to glorify people going nuts, being self-centered and just tearing other people apart, and somehow we have to stigmatize that.”
Research has shown human beings have the capacity to learn and adopt humility traits. And there is no shortage of good advice on the topic out there.
From the ancient poets and philosophers such as Homer and Cicero down through the words of Jewish and Christian Scripture to the multiple discoveries being made in the science of humility today, powerful leaders have been warned of the consequences of excessive pride.
Owens, for one, has not given up hope that Trump may experience a conversion similar to the experience of the nation’s first president.
George Washington early in life was fixated on status and wealth, Owens noted. Yet when he was at the zenith of his power after winning the Revolutionary War, he resigned his position as commander of the Continental Army, and gave his powers back to Congress.
King George III was mindful of the global history of military leaders from Julius Caesar to Napoleon consolidating political power after military success. The king said when he heard of Washington’s plan, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
The supreme irony noted by Owens is that if Trump became a humble president, sacrificing his own ego to pursue the nation’s interests over his own, such a transformational change toward the common good could fulfill his grand ambition.
Others would come to see Trump as he sees himself.
“His moral legacy or his historic legacy would be extremely powerful,” Owens said. “He could be a great, modern-day hero story.”