Donald Trump won. What does this outcome mean for business leaders across Australia?


Yesterday, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. For many, it was an unexpected and alarming result. For others, it was a win against the establishment. But what does it mean for Australian business leaders and how can it help us improve?  

Perhaps what has chilled people most about Trump’s win was that he could effectively espouse behaviours of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and bullying and still be supported so strongly. Are economic concerns promoting such primitive reactions and a return to the wrongs of yesteryear? You might find yourself asking, is the same true in Australia?

Fortunately, the answer is ‘no’. While Trump’s populism told us something worrying about what can win votes, we also saw that much of this country was appalled and stunned that he was even a prospect for president, let alone elected. People often keep their political views to themselves – this time, Australians have spoken with unprecedented candour about their dismay.

Why? Because while Australian corporate life still has a long way to go, we are already much better than this. And we want to be better still. Do we suffer from under-representation of women and non-white people in senior management? Absolutely. Is there a sense that this is wrong in every way, from equity and morality to sound commercial judgement? Absolutely.

Ethical leadership

During my time in boardrooms around Australia, I see senior executives regularly and consistently demonstrate that they do not want xenophobia, racism, misogyny or bullying in their organisations. They do not want these to be the values of their company and seek to consign them to the dustbin of history.

I see leaders who mentor Indigenous students and give diversity and inclusion equal time with financial results on their board agenda. They improve parental leave and return to work policies, include a hijab to their corporate wardrobe, provide practical support for persons with disabilities, speak out publicly about marriage equality and improve their environmental impact.

Could this simply be utilitarianism? Yes, but there’s no shame in doing things that are both good conscience and good business. And there’s much more to these changes than self-serving capitalism.

Many of these leaders would continue these practices even if it reduced their financial results. They think and act this way because they have become more enlightened than generations before them. Equally, they recognise that such ways of operating are intolerable to the new generations of talent they wish to attract and employ and, increasingly, to the customers they want to buy their products and services.

What this means for true leadership in Australia

While it is clear that Australian corporate leaders don’t resemble Trump or seek to emulate him, the election experience has helped us understand why this is so and how we want to be better.

Firstly, it reminds us that we must not tolerate breaches of core values. The behaviours that a senior executive overlooks are the behaviours that are endorsed. Are we ever guilty of not taking action on a manager’s bad behaviour just because they have the ‘art of the deal’? True leaders are the ultimate stewards of high standards.

Secondly, it reminds us of the deceptive lures of populism and short-termism. Playing to people’s fear and anger may get you elected, but they are not the true measure of a leader. True leaders delay gratification and do what is best for the long term, irrespective of short-term incentives or short-term pain. Trump himself has immediately moved to more inclusive and aspirational language since winning. Even he may be recognising that what he did as a campaign strategy is not what he should continue once a substantive leader of people.

The third and most palpable issue is that of gender equality. 45 Presidents without a single woman amongst them is a travesty. I won’t enter into any character comparisons between Clinton and Trump – we all understand how hard it is to find an unblemished soul in politics. What was clearly of concern though was double standards – it’s likely that if Clinton had said the things Trump did during the campaign, she would have been demonised and discarded. It’s also questionable whether she would have been defeated if she had XY chromosomes.

Sadly, this is the point that is closer to the bone for Australian corporations and society. We might wince as we consider that while gender policies have improved, it is not the same as equality. We may appoint more female CEOs now but do more insidious forms of discrimination and gender bias persist? Of course they do. True leaders do more than the current efforts, which focus on improving representation ratios. True leaders remove gender as a differentiator of access to opportunities in all ways.

But we’ll get there. Because we want to. Because we know deep down what’s right. Because it’s good for business. Because we aren’t Trump and because we wouldn’t want anyone to think we were. Because like every generation before us, we are getting a little better at embracing what brings us together, not what drives us apart, no matter what one election result might suggest.


About the author

Anthony Mitchell, is a director and co-founder of strategic advisory firm Bendelta. Anthony previously wrote Where leadership is blossoming in Australia. He also shared his thoughts on leadership with Dynamic Business in Follow the leader: a dangerous game when mediocrity prevails