Despite all the hand-wringing, America remains the world’s largest and most dominant economic and military power—and, as a result, the nation’s president remains arguably the most powerful person on the planet.
Not surprisingly, given its size and scope, the American government can also be an enormous, unwieldy entity; divided into three equal branches—Executive (the President & his cabinet), Legislative, and Judicial—the U.S. government also has a massive budget that is unparalleled by even the largest companies in the world.
For example: In 2014, the U.S. federal government spent an eye-popping $3.8trillion!
In addition to that massive fiscal responsibility, as Commander-in-Chief of the American military, the President also has to provide leadership to a world awash in political and military instability and upheaval. It could even be argued that, given recent world events, not since the days of the last World War has the American president faced as many challenges, both at home and abroad.
So any way you choose to look at it, being President of the United States is, as musicians are wont to say, “a tough gig.”
With a presidential election now just over a year away, both major political parties are in the process of selecting their respective nominees.
Interestingly, despite their ideological differences, one thing both parties share as we enter yet another presidential election cycle is the seemingly perpetual question: what leadership qualities are required for a successful presidential nominee and—ultimately—our next president?
Many American voters—of all political stripes—have expressed a desire to consider a political ‘outsider’ as their next president, particularly one with hands-on experience “running” a large organization; the thought behind this idea is that the same qualities that make for a successful business leader could—theoretically—transfer to the political world, and therein better prepare the next president for the seemingly endless financial and geopolitical challenges ahead.
But that poses an interesting question: does having leadership experience in the business world provide the experience and acumen required to be a successful president?
Unless you have resided under a (well insulated) rock the last few months, you’ve likely heard this question—in various forms—debated in American media. Of course, the driving factor behind that debate has been the (seemingly) omnipresent figure of Donald Trump, whose lengthy resume includes decades of prominent real estate development and, in recent years, his presence on the hit television program “The Apprentice.”
More recently, adding fuel to the debate about the merits of having a ‘CEO President’, has been the rising popularity of presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, former CEO of tech giant Hewlett-Packard. Like Trump, Fiorina touts her years as Chief Executive of one of the world’s most prominent tech companies as a substantial asset that would provide her with the requisite leadership skills needed to succeed as American president.
Although vastly different in both style and substance, by reaching the top tier of Republican presidential sweepstakes, Trump and Fiorina are forcing both the voters and pundits to confront the real possibility of having a business-trained, ‘non-politician’ as America’s next president.
Like anything having to do with entrepreneurialism, there are risks and rewards—or in this case, potential pros and cons—to selecting a business leader to run the American government, military and foreign policy.
Putting aside the specific individual personalities of prospective candidates, from the perspective of a fellow Chief Executive, here’s what I see as being the benefits–and potential drawbacks–of a President with a business-oriented resume:
- Financial savvy: Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of “hiring” a President with a business-oriented background would be the fiscal acumen (and one hopes discipline) that a former business leader would bring to both the Oval Office and Washington, D.C. America’s national debt is approaching $19 trillion, and with a rapidly aging population there will be considerably greater demand on programs such as Social Security and Medicare in the next few years; combine that with Washington’s penchant for ‘pork’—projects that serve the interests of few at the expense of many—and the idea of a president inclined to wield a responsible fiscal ‘stick’ becomes quite appealing indeed
- Leadership skills: One of the core traits of any successful business leader is the ability to put forward a ‘big picture vision’, and then build both the team and widespread consensus required to work toward that goal. Political preferences aside, it is hard to argue that over the last several years in Washington, there has been much ‘consensus’ leadership on display. It could be argued that a president with a proven track record in the business world, which illustrated the ability to ‘bring people together’ from various points of view, might be able to fill the considerable vacuum of visionary, and consensus-building leadership in our nation’s capital
- Interpersonal Skills: As I have discussed in previous columns, the ability to successfully interact and communicate with other senior leaders—as well as audiences both internal and external—is a critical component for achieving success as a business leader. That same skill is needed by a successful president; thirty years ago, despite their vast differences, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev established a strong personal relationship that played a role in diffusing Cold War tensions between the American and Russian super powers. That ability—to get beyond personal differences and work towards a mutually beneficial destiny—is a characteristic that could, potentially, be transferred from the ‘wheeling and dealing’ world of business to that of a President actively involved in world (and domestic) diplomacy.
- Division of Powers: America’s Founding Fathers were very wise men who took great precautions to ensure that no one branch of government—or individual, including the President—wielded too much power. As a result, our nation has three branches of government, with Constitutionally-mandated equal powers. In real terms, that means that in order for a president to see his ‘vision’ come to pass, he must convince the Legislative branch—Congress—to pass the laws required to achieve his presidential goals. As we’ve seen in recent years, that’s often easier said than done, and can often require considerable political acumen and experience that a former business leader may not necessarily bring with him or her to the Oval Office.
- Requisite Geopolitical Knowledge/Experience: It can be argued that few presidents arrive on the first day of their job with the required amount of foreign policy knowledge and experience, especially given the critical leadership role that a president plays in setting the national—and indeed, global—political agenda. However, it can also be argued that somepresidents, particularly those who either bring with them senior level political experience garnered from either the statehouse (i.e. governors) or Washington (i.e. Senators, former Cabinet members) at least have a baselineof knowledge about global affairs and/or trade and commerce. Other than senior business leaders of multi-national companies, few Chief Executives would bring with them to D.C. much hands-on acumen about global affairs or trade.
- Lack Of ‘Glad Handing’ Skills: Although there is, of course, a certain amount of ‘office politics’ at play in any organization, there is a vast difference between that, and the type of national political campaigning required to be elected president. Chief Executives tend to be ‘can-do’ people who are more results-oriented, and while there may be some executives who could endure—and perhaps even enjoy—the lengthy, costly and unwieldy process of running for the highest office in the land, many others would find the process onerous; in addition, ‘kissing babies’ and taking ‘selfies’ are not the kind of events that most successful CEOs would normally gravitate towards. Simply put, unlike many ‘professional’ politicians, business people are not ‘natural campaigners’.
Without a doubt, the 2016 Presidential Election is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating, unpredictable races in modern times. Based on early results—and we are, after all, still a full year out from election day—there appears to be a palpable desire among the electorate to–at the very least–give serious consideration to ‘non-traditional’ politicians as our next President, including at least two former/current Chief Executive Officers.
Time, as it always does, will ultimately tell whether the American electorate is truly ready to recruit our next President from the ranks of Corporate America.
In the interim, the debate over transferring a business leader from his—or her—executive corner office to the famed Oval one in Washington is likely to heat up in the coming months.