Let’s face it: leadership involves ego. It is an unspoken requirement for any leader, whether a politician, the head of a company or a community organiser. A person has to have a solid sense of self to lead others, and that’s not always – or even often – a bad thing. So it’s unsurprising that there’s been a lot of discussion about the egos of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, two of the most seemingly egotistical leaders in the world today.
Certain world leaders have an obvious need for visibility while there are others whose need is less apparent. I think it’s safe to say that for both of these politicians, visibility is central to how they do their work.
In Singapore, the mutual need for visibility was very much on display between Trump and Kim. Though the lenses of multiple cameras, motorcades, crowds and handshakes, both men wanted to be seen as confident, forceful and present in the centre of the world stage.
North Korean leaders have previously scrapped negotiations to consolidate their image of strength at the top of a regime, while Trump knows he is the first to get as close to North Korea as Madeline Albright almost two decades ago. This meeting provides the limelight both have been chasing, which has been the motivation and the blueprint for how they have always interacted.
These two leaders have used strong and combative language as their primary method of public communication, presumably to let the other know they have no plan to back down as well as to show their strength to onlookers. In other words, both men seemed to understand perfectly one of the main components of basic communication skills, which is asking yourself, “What do I want this audience to walk away with?” In my opinion, neither of them wanted to lose face and that made them willing to be confrontational in the run-up to the summit.
But on 12 June, the manner between the two men parted from the norm. Their mutual motivation to be admired and to be remembered as central to a historic event was clear in their every exchange.
Numerous photo opportunities and footage of the two leaders shaking hands, sitting side by side, walking and talking was staged for optimum display. And through it all, each man continued to convey their motivations through their non-verbal behaviour.
When they first met, President Trump shook Kim Jong-un’s hand and also put his hand on his shoulder, which he tends to do when he meets other world leaders. This was, perhaps, an invitation to the world to look upon this as a serious summit and upon Kim Jong-un as a serious leader. In this way, it was an act of generosity.
Though Kim Jong-un is often seen smiling at public events with his shoulders pulled back and chest held high, he looked relatively sober in comparison. He also touched Trump’s arm, mirroring his counterpart’s body language as an apparent gesture of goodwill.
Each one of these physical gestures – the touching of arms and backs – was meant to convey control and confidence. Interestingly, Trump decided when the initial photo-op was over to usher the leader of North Korea off to the side of the platform. The choice to have them sit side by side eliminated the height contrast and put Kim Jong-un on more of an equal footing.
Nevertheless, during that session, I felt that Trump used his light banter with reporters as a measure of control. He knew what he was doing and he was familiar in an international media context: he wanted Kim to know that he was helping to direct the story, even while he wanted to put the North Korean leader at ease. It was a soft display of dominance.
The real story will be how stable their communication will remain. Public posturing is one thing, but what happens behind closed doors will be another. If ego is the only thing guiding Trump and Kim’s leaderships, then the consideration of those impacted by leadership choices is lost. And with these two leaders, it is ultimately their motives that will matter in the end, long after the journalists have gone home and the cameras have been switched off.
The writer is a confidence and communication expert and media commentator.