The Trump factor: In a world of bosses and leaders, which are you?

Presidential hopeful Donald Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook embody the stark difference between true leadership and simply bossing people around. David Gewirtz weighs the consequences.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Sometimes life truly does imitate art. Take the case of Donald Trump.

Here's a guy who, for more than a decade, conducted what was billed as "the ultimate job interview" on TV. A crop of hopefuls presented themselves on television. They jumped through a series of progressively sillier and more demeaning hoops, and week after week, there were fewer and fewer of them left until one of them scored the brass ring: becoming president.

That was the premise of The Apprentice. A batch of hopeful job candidates were paraded in front of Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Each week there would be winners and losers, until one of them was chosen to be the president of one of Trump's companies.

How ironic it is that Donald Trump is, in effect, playing in his own hunger game -- but on a larger scale? This time, instead of being the judge, he's one of the tributes.

So far, against all odds, he's survived. The incoming class consisted of 17 candidates from all walks of life, including the son of a bartender, the son of a mailman, the son of a dishwasher, two doctors, and a successful businessman. So far this primary season, 14 of the 17 original candidates have fallen.

Yesterday, Florida and Ohio voted. These were winner-take-all contests with their hometown heroes on the ballot. Trump and Cruz continue to play on. But while the tribute from Ohio survived, the promising young man from Florida fell, brutally undone by his own actions in the arena.

Trump's triumph not only defies all odds, it defies all sense. After all, he's been short on details, has made statement after statement that would blast another candidate out of the race, and yet each rationally unacceptable statement has only made him stronger.

But let's remember. He's starred in a smaller version of this game since 2004. There's even a board game of The Apprentice.

As in The Apprentice, the challenges get harder and harder. Trump no longer needs to simply stand out from the pack. He no longer just needs to wait while weaker tributes drop from lack of sponsorship, inability to defend themselves from attack, or self-inflicted wounds.

Trump now needs to expand his audience. He needs to prove he can actually handle the job he's interviewing for. He has to become presidential to become President.

And that's where the question of whether he's a leader -- or just a boss -- comes into play.

Apple, Tim Cook, and the FBI

Take, for example, Apple's Tim Cook. Like Trump, who heads the 22,450 employee Trump Organization, Cook is undoubtedly a boss. After all, Cook is the head of the world's most valuable company.

As we've watched with great care here on ZDNet, Cook has taken on the challenge of fighting back against the FBI's attempt to require Apple to develop cracking software in order to decrypt San Bernardino terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone.

Although Apple tends to be an enormously secretive organization, the FBI dragged the issue into the open when they attempted to leverage the All Writs Act of 1789 to compel Apple to write the software. According to Tim Cook, in an interview with ABC, Apple found out about this action in the press.

Given that back channel discussions were no longer possible, Cook (and presumably a large segment of Apple's executive management team) had to make a decision: comply with the FBI's order or push back. Now, make no mistake about it: Complying with the FBI would have been the easier solution, and Apple certainly has the PR muscle and enough residual mojo from Steve Jobs' reality distortion field to ensure public support.

But instead, Cook and Apple decided to defy the FBI, and do so in a very public way. As I discussed a few weeks ago, the potential for harm to Apple's reputation, damage to the company's ability to do business, and even the potential for criminal liability (should another attack take place that might have been prevented if only an iPhone could have been cracked) all made this the harder road for Cook to take.

We may never know the internal battles that transpired inside Apple before Cook announced his no-cracking policy. But once the decision was made, Cook took on the unusual responsibility of explaining why his decision was right for both Apple customers and the general public as a whole.

Doing the right things

This is where leadership comes into play. Peter F. Drucker, who is known for his influence on modern management thinking and is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, once said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."

There is no doubt, in large part because of Cook's operational skills, that Apple has excelled at doing things right. But we've often questioned whether Apple would do the right things. I even once did a send-up of the original Macintosh 1984 commercial by casting Steve Jobs in the role of Big Brother.

Here, with the FBI situation, is a case of Apple, through Cook, doing the right things. When confronted by ABC's David Muir with polling data saying many Americans believe Apple should write the software, Cook replied, "This is not about a poll. This is about the future. When people understand what is at stake here, an increasing number support us."

Cook had a lot to say in that interview, but what was most important was that he framed the discussion around why Apple's decision was a matter of the public good. He said:

"This is about civil liberties and is about people's ability to protect themselves. If we take encryption away from the good people, the only people that would be affected are the good people, not the bad people... they will find it anyway."

One of the biggest challenges in leadership is that the people you're leading are people who are not necessarily required to do your bidding.

I discovered this early in my career when, as a young product manager, I found myself responsible for running a cross-functional team of professionals tasked with shipping a hugely complex product -- an entirely new operating system. The problem was that none of them reported to me. I couldn't promote or fire any of them. My only tool was our shared goal. Creating buy-in was the only way the job would get done.

This is certainly the case now with Apple. The FBI situation requires judges and members of Congress -- and even other technology companies -- to support Apple's position.

Cook had to frame the conflict in terms that gave those on all sides a way to feel comfortable siding with Apple. He told Muir, "People care deeply about civil liberties in Washington. They care deeply about safety. They care deeply about national security. All of these issues are things all of us care about."

And Cook took that appeal and framed it in a way that gave it more universal appeal:

All of these groups [security, tech, civil liberties] need to come together. We've recommended a commission...the key is for all of the key people to come together and really think through these issues, but not just look at one, but look at all of them and recognize that at the core of this are some of the founding principles of our country which we should take a huge pause to trample on.

President Theodore Roosevelt stated, "People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives." Which brings us back to Donald Trump.

Our better angels

Leadership -- as compared to, say, bossiness -- is tough to define. I've always felt that leadership involves more than just commanding. It requires explaining and getting buy-in. It involves persuading, not just arm twisting. And, as Drucker pointed out, it involves doing the right thing and appealing to the better angels in others.

Right now, we're not seeing all the better angels in Donald Trump. There is no doubt he has the ability persuade and even to get buy-in. Otherwise, a man who started off seemingly as a joke candidate wouldn't be leading the field. Trump's candidacy is certainly no joke.

But this may be a missed opportunity. Trump is missing out on teachable moments, opportunities to demonstrate leadership, not just showmanship.

Two specific examples come to mind: the furor over Trump's response to CNN's Jake Taper about David Duke and the KKK, and the extreme unrest we're seeing at Trump rallies.

I don't fault Trump for his flubbed response to Taper's question about David Duke or even the KKK. Anyone can botch an interview question -- even a freebie as easy as saying the Ku Klux Klan is bad. Where I fault Trump is, in the many subsequent follow-up questions in the weeks since, he simply repeated -- with annoyance -- that he "disavowed" the KKK.

Rather than saying on the Today Show, "How many times do I have to continue to disavow people," he could have turned that into a teachable moment about race relations and tolerance. In his post-win press conferences, he could have appealed for tolerance and discussed why racial tensions are bad for the country. He could have worked to bring Americans together.

That's the missed leadership opportunity.

And then there are the rallies. If he can't get them under control, these rallies -- and Trump's involvement in them -- may be the straw that breaks Trump's campaign, breaking down the confidence in a leader required to get elected.

There's a lot of culpability to go around, ranging from Trump's supporters to anti-Trump protesters, to the most likely very frightened local police tasked with managing the chaos. But mistakes and violence are happening.

Clearly, there's a leadership gap, especially when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong. At an early rally, Trump once said, "I'd like to punch him in the face." At another, he stated, "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. I promise you I will pay for the legal fees."

Is it any wonder we're seeing escalating violence at these events? Not only has Trump effectively encouraged his fans to fight back, he's also opened the door to protesters who now know there's a reliable way to generate negative press coverage of Trump.

As a result of Trump's locker room behavior, he's actually accomplished the opposite of what he set out to do. While attempting to show strength, he's actually weakened his campaign. He's demonstrated an inability to control the chaos.

If there's one thing we hire an American president to do, it's control the chaos. Whether you think Trump incited the violence at his events, or was just commenting on its actuality, his chances are perhaps reduced, some confidence in him has been no doubt lost, and certainly his presidential-ness is diminished by how he could not bring himself to stay out of the verbal fray and how he seems to have let the chaos of the events overtake him.

Even worse, this was a missed leadership opportunity for Trump. While he's made some nods to keeping the violence under control, like instructing those escorting protesters to be gentle, the mere fact that he lets himself get derailed from his speech to issue tactical instructions -- or simply involve the crowd in the fun -- is not presidential behavior.

Cat fights make for great reality TV, but in the real world, there is real blood. An opportunity to lead and to demonstrate leadership skill has been squandered. Trump needs to demonstrate he's not just a rough-and-ready rich kid from Queens. He needs to show he can lead -- and that he knows the difference between leading and sounding tough.

There is a difference between bossiness and leadership. There is a difference between merely taking charge and giving direction. There is a difference between telling people what to do because you have some control over their lives and inspiring people to do what you want them to do because you share beliefs and goals.

What about you?

OK, I've talked about Donald Trump and Tim Cook, about missed opportunities for leadership and about taking the tough road because it's the right thing to do. So, now let's talk about you.

If you manage others, are you a leader, or are you just bossy? If you want to build a company or someday want to work your way into management, is it because you have a vision or just because you want to be the boss?

Here's the thing I've learned in all my years as a leader, a manager, a company president, and a boss. People will comply because you have some authority hold over them -- like the ability to grant raises or fire them. But people will do their best, pull out all the stops, drive themselves to be the best they can be when they're inspired, when they share your goals, when they understand your vision.

Being a boss can drive your people to do their jobs. But when you're a leader, there are no limits. Which are you?

As for The Donald, he's clearly got the ability to incite a crowd. But can he inspire a nation and lead the world? That depends on whether or not he knows what it is to be more than just a boss, go beyond "You're fired," rein in the chest thumping, and not just hold court at a "made for TV" set in Trump Tower, but wear the mantle of leadership behind the Resolute desk.

Only time will tell.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

17 fascinating tech pioneers who are not Steve Jobs

Editorial standards