Donald Trump, last of the flamboyant CEOs?

Story highlights

  • Martha Pease: Donald Trump's leadership harks back to a vanishing breed of charismatic CEOs
  • Research finds that the take-no-prisoners CEOs actually may accomplish less than cooler, calmer leaders, she says

Martha Pease is CEO of DemandWerks, a firm that advises companies on marketing strategy, and co-author of the book "Think Round." Follow her on Twitter: @Martha_Pease. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)For months, Donald Trump's success as a campaigner has perplexed most observers (including me). How could he defy gravity so long? But the longer his success in the polls goes on, the more it appears we are watching him through the wrong lens. Instead of looking at him as a politician, we should see him in the role he knows best: Celebrity CEO.

America has had a long love affair with CEOs who are strong, decisive, often blustery and take no prisoners. Jack Welch was a poster boy for tough-minded leadership at GE; his picture and advice on success adorned the covers of business magazines for years. Many thought he would be a great president.
Martha Pease
Or think Lee Iacocca: He, too, became a celebrity as the CEO who turned around Chrysler and was one of the most respected leaders in America. Iacocca reportedly flirted with the idea of running for the White House and wisely turned it down. Or think Richard Branson, whose flamboyant leadership has made him a household name and whose Virgin holdings are the hottest brand in Britain -- and in many parts of the United States.
While research has begun to downplay the accomplishments of celebrity CEOs, many Americans continue to believe in their almost magical powers. And so it is with Donald Trump: He comes out of that strongman, celebrity tradition, and despite his boorish antics, many voters are flocking to him in the belief that as a longtime CEO, he can do what conventional politicians can't: turn the country around.
Trump actually gets extra credit for the appearance of being hyper-aggressive, for projecting an image of him facing down high-risk decisions while flawlessly navigating a wide range of complex and ambiguous scenarios.
Unlike the uncharismatic Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump seems to be getting transfer credit -- from business into the political arena -- for skills he may not actually possess. Nevertheless, since June, polls have shown that GOP voters have put Trump at the top of the GOP list for being trusted to handle the big-issues stuff, including the economy, illegal immigration and ISIS.
Typically, charismatic CEOs base their power in a guiding vision. Branson, for example, is one who had a brash vision of serial start-ups across all kinds of undervalued business sectors. He branded that vision Virgin, by Richard Branson. Similarly, Trump has a brash vision of reasserting U.S. leadership across every front: Make America Great Again, by Donald Trump. No other candidate has an emotional brand position or rallying call like that, which may explain some of his longevity at the top of the polls.
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Like many a seasoned CEO, Trump goes after challengers by heaping doubt on their capabilities. Consider Jeb Bush, the assumed early GOP leader, who saw his poll and donor numbers sink when Trump labeled him "low energy" and a "loser." Trump is already targeting Hillary Clinton on trustworthiness, where she is most vulnerable, especially with educated women voters who have been critical to every Democratic candidate for the White House since 1980, and who remain crucial to her election bid.
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Trump also says he'll live up to the golden rule of great business leaders, by attracting top-flight talent to execute his vision to Make America Great Again and by bringing management change to struggling bureaucracies like the Veterans Administration and IRS.
There is a danger lurking here for Trump: the growing belief in the business world that celebrity CEOs are not as good as they were once cracked up to be.
In "Good to Great," one of the most popular books on business leadership, Jim Collins makes a persuasive argument that those who produce the best corporate results are low-key, disciplined and relentless in moving forward one step at a time. Corporate boards are now shying away from celebrities and looking for the Level 5 leaders that Collins promotes.
And the results are showing.
Think of Alan Mulally, the CEO who steered Ford Motor to safety when other auto companies were heading to bankruptcy. Or think of A.G. Lafley, who possesses that paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will that defines Level 5 leadership. Lafley became so indispensable to P&G that he had to come out of retirement to retake the reins.
Or think Indra Nooyi at Pepsi, Howard Schultz at Starbucks and Jeff Immelt at GE. As admired as Jack Welch was in his era, the board has been happier with an Immelt on the job today.
Ironically, Trump is playing the CEO card in politics at the very moment when it is becoming discredited in the corporate sector. That's no doubt why so many business leaders are wary of Trump: They know that blustery strongman tactics ultimately don't work well in today's world. Maybe voters who are star-struck by Trump may change their minds, too.