Trump meets his Magna Carta

The many challenges to his use of emergency powers for a border wall are also a challenge to the steady rise in presidential power – and to the definition of leadership as only one-person rule.

A man walks with an American flag flying upside down during a protest Feb. 18 near the White House.

Perhaps never before in the history of Presidents’ Day has the power of an American president been so openly challenged as it was during the holiday on Feb. 18. Thousands rallied nationwide to protest President Trump’s use of emergency powers to take money for a border wall. In addition, 16 states declared they would sue him in court over his declaration. Many in Congress plotted countermoves. To top it off, news broke in previous days that Justice Department officials in 2017 had discussed whether to remove Mr. Trump under the 25th Amendment.

All of this, of course, fell merely by coincidence on the day to honor past presidents. Yet the challenges to Trump went beyond policy disputes, such as immigration, and raised the question of whether the United States, especially Congress, has allowed too much authority to be taken by its chief executives.

One protest sign on Monday stated “Trump is the emergency.” In recent days, historians have recounted dozens of cases in which presidents had claimed unilateral power without approval, especially in initiating foreign attacks. Over time, the accretion of power has created an “imperial presidency,” or an executive branch more and more immune to the Constitution’s checks and balances.

Outside the federal government, this type of problem is called “key-person risk.” It is the danger of relying too much on one individual to lead an organization. The risk is often applied to a company’s founder. But it can also apply to a key expert, such as a creative designer in a high-tech firm or a skilled geologist in an oil exploration firm. What if they mess up? On the flip side, what if they suddenly leave?

One recent example is Elon Musk being forced to resign as chairman of Tesla over charges of stock manipulation in relation to one of his tweets. Another example was investor concern about Apple’s future after the death of its founding genius, Steve Jobs. Similar concerns are being voiced about Jeff Bezos someday leaving Amazon or Mark Zuckerberg leaving Facebook.

Companies and their investors have long tried to get around key-person risk. They make sure a company has a deep bench of similar talent. They buy professional indemnity insurance or discount a company’s value if it is too vulnerable to having an indispensable executive.

Another avenue is to rethink leadership itself. Must it always be centralized? Can it be separated from one person’s prestige? Can it be distributed to accountable networks of employees?

At a deeper level, the common definitions of power must be questioned. The best organizations are built on attributes that can be shared widely. These include transparency in information, equality in deliberations, honesty in communications, and patience toward results. In such organizations, leaders use attraction, not fear. Their confidence is tempered by humility and listening.

Self-reflection and even self-criticism, if they lead to unity of purpose, can be a type of power. They open potential in others rather than define it unilaterally.

Reshaping the federal government along such lines may be a long way off. Companies themselves are still trying new hybrids of vertical and horizontal leadership. But as the challenges to Trump continue, Americans can judge them with an eye to redefining power in Washington. Authority need not always lie in only one person. It may lie in the self-effacing qualities a president demonstrates.

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