How to use Trump's fear driven leadership style for good


Entrepreneur. Author. Speaker. Cofounder of LearnMaker

As long as you haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, I’m sure you’ve seen the rise of Donald Trump in American politics. The man who many thought was a joke candidate in the early stages is now dangerously only one step away from taking up residence in the White House.

For anyone of sound mind, it is hard to really understand how he has gained such widespread support. While it’s clear that he’s bullied and lied his way to the top, and there’s signs of a sociopathic personality at play for sure, Trump’s success in the political arena owes more to his ability to exploit and play on the fears of others, often when these fears are totally irrational. Even in the face of facts and sound bytes that disprove or contradict many of the things Trump says, it hasn’t affected his support in some quarters. People are creating their own reality to match their emotions and feelings on the matter.

This is because Trump expertly exploits the biology of the brain, and this was never more apparent than in the first of the political debates that went out on Sunday evening. While Clinton used logic and reasoning in her statements, Trump resorted largely to scaremongering and blame, giving few, if any answers to the questions he was supposed to be answering. A mistake many leaders make is to rely on facts and figures to mobilise their cause. It simply doesn’t work, because there is no ‘story’ for us to buy into. While Trump is a huge menace to the world, there is a lot to learn from how he has gotten so far in American politics.

To understand how he has developed such appeal we must first look at how the brain developed.

While the brain is a single organ, but it is actually made up of three areas as it developed in different stages.

1. The Reptilian Brain

The oldest part of the brain responsible for regulating vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and pretty much anything else that will keep you alive. It is rigid and structured in its actions.

2. The Limbic System

Often referred to as the ‘emotional centre’, the limbic system is responsible for emotions and the encoding and retrieval of memories. The amygdala, which sits pretty much on top of the reptilian brain is key in the limbic system, because it interprets the sights, sounds and environment around you before passing it to the reptilian brain to produce the corresponding hormones.

3. The Neocortex

The final ‘upgrade’ we humans got that enabled us to thrive because the neocortex allows us to think logically, communicate and reason. About 76% of our brain is neocortex, showing just how much we are ‘thinking’ beings compared to everything else on the planet.


What every leader should know is that the limbic system deals in emotions, and the neocortex deals in language. This means that they cannot talk or communicate to one another. This is the reason people get buyer’s remorse and it’s even reflected in how they would describe that situation. “At the time I thought it was a good idea but now I feel differently”.

What people like Donald Trump exploit is that by playing on someone’s fears you crystallise an emotion that makes them a slave to your cause.

This is an evolutionary hangover that developed to ensure our survival. In our hunter gatherer days the world was filled with dangers. Humans existed in communities of up to about 150 people, so everyone knew each other in their own tribe. When a tribe member came across someone they didn’t recognise it signalled danger because this was a sign of another tribe. New tribes meant competition for the area’s resources as well as the threat of raiding parties. The humans who recognised this danger earlier, dealt with it better by either protecting their land or driving the other tribe out. These people survived and lived to pass on their genes, while their more trusting peers did not. While we danger does not exist in the way it did back in our tribal communities, we are the genetic product of tribes that survived and thrived, so by our very nature we are distrustful and suspicious of others.

Logic, facts and reasoning will never trump (pardon the pun!) an emotional reaction, and this is what make leaders like Donald Trump so dangerous. He blew away all the opposition in the Republican party because they used reasoning to fight his fear driven rhetoric. It was akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight.

As leaders it is all too easy to fall into the trap of relying on facts rather than appealing to emotions

What you can learn from Trump is that to lead people you must appeal to their emotions. He is unfortunately a master of this but he uses it only to benefit himself, often at the expense of others. Put to good, the technique of appealing to the emotional brain is the most powerful motivator there is. People must have belief if you are to lead them, and whether you’re a politician, business leader or school headteacher, it is vital to connect your people with a story that speaks to them.

From today you can begin putting your organisation’s objectives and goals into stories. You’ll find it easier to lead people and should you ever come up with someone as despicable as Donald Trump you’ll have everything you need to go head to head.

Jay Ashcroft

Entrepreneur. Author. Speaker. Cofounder of LearnMaker