Would a Business Executive Make a Good President?

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At a time when our politics seem broken at the national level, now might be a good moment to think through the executive skills needed for success as the nation’s CEO.

I don’t make this observation with any particular candidate in mind for the presidency in 2016. I’m far less interested in the outcome of specific issues than in the process for coming to grips with them. Whether it’s sensible long-term budgeting, schooling, tax reform or infrastructure, we need a leader who will take up a serious process to address issues.

It’s surely true that our finest presidents haven’t had significant business experience. Being a log-cabin lawyer or patrician farmer doesn’t count. The achievements of Lincoln or FDR or Truman or Reagan were in fact largely a product of classic political skills. But there are elements of being president—the country’s chief executive—that demand what brilliant business leaders do. And as the U.S. government has grown to be the largest enterprise in the world, the abilities of those trained to run enterprises are worth considering.

 The talents that great CEOs possess fall into five categories:

  • People: It’s essential to hire, coach and retain individuals who work as a team. The Cabinet and the agencies, as well as Congress, work best when they’re rowing together. That doesn’t mean everybody agrees. But the relentless infighting that has come to dominate Washington produces gridlock. A president with deep experience herding cats at a large company might offer a way that seems to escape career politicians.
  • Objectives: A team works best when it knows what winning actually is. The best CEOs set priorities and give everyone a “line of sight” to goals. That means creating projects with champions, deliverables, timetables, budgets and support—in pursuit of a realistic strategy. Platitudes and speeches don’t cut it.
  • Communications: The best business leaders ensure that their words and actions match, publicly and privately. Sometimes such traits are lacking in our current leaders. Charisma of course counts, but demonstrated performance comes first. Many top CEOs communicate effectively without oratorical flourish.
  • Culture: Great CEOs celebrate the core values of an enterprise. Culture can become the widest, deepest moat to protect a business and give it staying power. Our political culture, to put it mildly, has turned toxic.
  • Accountability: A team needs to be accountable. If you can measure whether you’ve reached a goal, you can allocate resources and you can motivate the troops. You get what you measure, because measurements tend to drive individuals to optimize their “scores.” How many political leaders declare success without ever explaining to us just what metric they’re using?

When we think of a head-of-state, most of us imagine a spokesperson who symbolizes “American values” and makes us feel good. That’s fine, but more important these days ought to be a president who has the skills to thrive in all five categories described above.

The federal government is a multi-trillion-dollar business. But without the discipline of the marketplace, it’s become bloated and unaccountable, driven by ideologies more than practicalities. Indeed, if USA Inc. were a market-constrained enterprise, it would’ve failed years ago. It rarely sets clear priorities. It doesn’t meet its budgets. It fails to deliver on promises. A business and a brand performing the way we’re headed would risk oblivion.

“Government” and “business” aren’t synonymous. Government isn’t driven, and shouldn’t be driven, by a profit motive. CEOs often govern on their own, whereas presidents must work with Congress and rightly must consider public opinion. And when it comes to governing, ideologies do matter—but maybe they should matter a bit less than running the machinery of government effectively, with a clear strategy that’s aligned with objectives and measureable results.

Competence should trump adherence to dogma about this hot-button social issue or that conventional foreign-policy wisdom. I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump is the answer either; if one views him through the lens of the five key things great business leaders do well, he may seem more of a caricature.

But it could be interesting to see a Jeffrey Immelt of G.E. or a Howard Schultz of Starbucks as part of the national conversation. The former’s a Republican and the latter’s a Democrat. Or add to the mix Alan Mulally, the former Boeing executive and Ford CEO (whose politics I don’t know). All have been superb leaders, with stated goals, demonstrable results, and responsible stewardship. And, of course, Mike Bloomberg, an independent, thrived in three terms as the mayor of New York City.

It may well be true that any of them—as well as other CEOs—might flee from a presidential candidacy. They might invoke the quip of the late New York Times columnist William Safire when his name came up as possible secretary of state to the first President Bush: “Why step down?”

The answer would be to address the obvious issues we face. In selecting our next president, let’s remember that we’re actually hiring our nation’s next CEO—and take into account the skills that our best business leaders have honed.

By Joel Peterson