Boss Trump in action: Seeking talent, rewarding loyalty

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  • Michael D'Antonio: Trump has shown he most values raw talent and abject loyalty
  • President-elect Trump wants his executives to tune in to his thought process

Michael D'Antonio, the author of "The Truth About Trump," is writing Trump Watch, a series of columns on President-elect Donald Trump for CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)At the first stop on a victory tour that evoked his chaotic campaign, President-elect Donald Trump said, "We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense." The studious retired Marine Gen. James Mattis has other nicknames, including "Warrior Monk." But Trump learned much of what he knows about leadership at military school, and "Mad Dog" sounded just right to a man who was taught that life is all about determining where you fit into the pack.

High school years spent playing soldier helped make Trump insatiable for ever-higher ranks. Through a brutal campaign he made himself truly the world's Top Dog. But even the most-alpha male needs a few strong allies.
In Mattis, Trump has found one who may prove to be a steadying influence. But don't expect Trump to appoint many other strong and independent personalities to high positions. If rank figures foremost in Trump's leadership style -- and it does -- then look for his wider team to be filled by low-profile men and women who know their places.
    Michael D'Antonio
    In building executive groups, Trump has repeatedly shown that he values raw talent and abject loyalty over all other qualities. Experience hardly figures into the equation, as his reliance on his grown children demonstrates. When barely out of school, they were made into his most powerful business associates.
    When he hires outside the family, Trump generally acts on the basis of gut instinct, choosing people with energy who crave the rewards he can offer. In his businesses this has meant high pay and fast promotions for those who quietly get the job done.
    Perhaps the most unusual thing about Trump as Boss is his profound and overwhelming need for his executives to tune in to his thought process. Trump's longest-serving employees anticipate his desires and automatically act to satisfy them. In this way, they continually affirm his methods and his view of the world.
    In his interviews with potential appointees, including Mitt Romney, Trump is making sure people know what is expected and determining whether they can comply.

    The torment of Mitt Romney

    During past transition periods, presidents-in-waiting have generally been circumspect in their consideration of appointees, contacting them privately and quietly. Trump, by contrast, has made a show of receiving supplicants in a public way, making sure that the media report on arrivals and departures.
    This exercise signals to the hopeful candidates that they are in a competition, and thus the world will know whether they win or lose. Like a game show host, Trump even declared, "I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!"
    In the case of Romney, who excoriated candidate Trump as "a phony, a fraud," the spectacle of his pilgrimages to discuss the job of secretary of state is humiliating enough to make anyone with empathy cringe and look away. After Romney visited the clubhouse at a Trump golf course and dined with the President-elect at a Trump hotel, Newt Gingrich publicly cackled over the sight of him "sucking up."
    Romney may think that as secretary of state, he could spare the world from Trump's worst impulses. This would be an admirable sentiment. However, he should know that his biggest challenge will involve dealing with a boss who will demand that his appointees dim their personalities, shun the limelight and forgo any independent exercise of power.
    Romney comes across as an intelligent, decent man who might use the position of secretary of state to cement his legacy as a leader, much as John Kerry has done under President Obama.
    Unfortunately for Romney, Trump will not be inclined to let a secretary of state achieve such status. The nation's chief diplomat will travel the globe and work diligently on policy. But the glory, if any is to be had, will belong to Donald Trump.
    Any doubts that candidates may harbor about Trump's need to be the sole star on stage should be dispelled by his treatment of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was for a long time the most important supporter of candidate Trump.
    Christie appeared headed for a big job in the new administration until he hogged the spotlight when he appeared with Trump and then seemed to dial back his support when the campaign was rocked by scandal.
    Days after Trump won the election, Christie was jettisoned as head of the transition team. He is no longer even mentioned in discussions of Trump's Cabinet.

    The ideal employee

    Prior to Trump's election campaign, few people had ever heard of his lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his rough performances on the candidate's behalf showed his discomfort in the public eye. However, over the years, Cohen has been an effective player on the Trump team, working behind the scenes to get results that make the top man look good.
    In Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Trump selected someone who fits his idea of the perfect executive team member. Although he holds views on issues like gay rights that alarm his critics, Pence is soft spoken and quietly charming. As a member of the Republican leadership in Congress, he was an effective behind-the-scenes operator, and as governor of Indiana he exhibited management skills.
    When Pence was briefly addressed by a cast member of the Broadway musical "Hamilton," who implored him to serve every American, it was Trump who overreacted on Twitter. Pence reacted with equanimity.
    Going forward, Pence will likely be rewarded with a fat portfolio of responsibilities and the new President's support. This is how Trump the Boss operates. Once you are hired, you will be permitted to advance quickly and will be supported in times of crisis.
    In part, this steadfast support flows from the fact that Trump hates to admit mistakes. His hires are embodiments of Trump the Decider, and he will be loath to undercut you because then his original choice will come into question.
    Trump executive George Sorial once told me, "He'll call you any time of day or night and always expect you to respond. But he'll have your back if you are attacked."

    Boss Trump can listen

    Thus far, when you look at Trump's picks for various high-level positions, you see few who will challenge a President Trump's command of the spotlight.
    The closest thing to a rising political star in this lineup is South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is young and photogenic and known for her appeal to voters outside the conservative Republican base. But her post as ambassador to the United Nations is not one that commands daily attention from the media. She has no background in foreign policy, and thus will likely please the Boss by following more than she leads.
    Still, events have a way of forcing presidents and their administrations to work outside of an established comfort zone.
    President Ronald Reagan famously convened a "kitchen cabinet" of old friends to help him make decisions by speaking to him in a direct and forceful way. In Trump's executive suite, his children have sometimes played the role of truth-tellers, and, as they have told me, they occasionally changed his mind on important matters.
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    The Trump Cabinet will, for its part, inevitably include people like Gen. Mattis who will be willing to offer a President Trump their best advice and counsel even when it contradicts his assumptions.
    Mattis, who is a true warrior and not just the product of a military high school, should enjoy Trump's true confidence and will be able to help him sort out competing views during a national security crisis. On the domestic front, Pence will be able to help him recognize policies that can be accepted by Congress and that might, more importantly, benefit the nation.
    And what of the biggest discussion of the moment, that over secretary of state? Romney has demonstrated diplomatic skills in abundance by setting his dignity aside and participating in Trump's process, the kind of sacrifice this particular boss appreciates in an employee.
    If it wins Romney the job, Trump is likely to leave him alone -- as long as the secretary of state's light is kept properly dimmed. The result would be good for a world that awaits a President Trump with great anxiety.