Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have deep private sector experience, yet American history has seen few candidates with such backgrounds campaign successfully for president. (SCOTT AUDETTE/REUTERS)

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Herman Cain and whether prior politicial experience is a prerequisite for being an effective president.

Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, currently the leading candidates for the Republican nomination, say that their private sector experience qualifies them for the presidency. They argue, in essence, that there is nothing special about politics and political systems – that what they learned running firms like Bain Capital and Godfather’s Pizza is what they need to know to be president. 

A little history might help here. No president has ever been elected based primarily on his private sector experience. Of the 43 men to hold the office, all save Chester Arthur, a vice president who became president when James Garfield was assassinated, had more than a year of experience in nationally important military or political offices before his election.

Romney’s four years as governor of Massachusetts would actually make him among the least politically experienced presidents, and there is no historical precedent for a commander-in-chief with a background like Cain’s. Even Arthur spent four years as collector of the port of New York – at the time a significant political appointment – before becoming vice president.

How important is a leader’s experience, particularly when it comes to the resident of the White House? Our research, on both business and political leaders, shows that experience plays two key roles. First, experience imprints leaders, teaching them how to operate in a particular environment and giving them a particular managerial style and approach. Equally important, however, a candidate’s performance in various offices reveals his or her true effectiveness in that position. It allows others to evaluate his or her ability to succeed in that role.

Thus, a candidate’s experience in one type of organization tells us surprisingly little about his or her ability to lead in other roles or settings. Research shows that leaders’ effectiveness is dependent on the role and the context in which they work. Someone who does well in one industry often does poorly in another. What succeeds in business can fail in politics.

Because so much of a leader’s performance depends on the specific economic and cultural context, about the only thing we can say about outsiders’ likelihood of success is that, well, it depends. Sometimes it works, as it did when IBM hired Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of RJR Nabisco. Other times, as with Hewlett-Packard, where the board of directors has repeatedly hired outsiders in recent years, the results are mixed. Still other times, however, such as when Home Depot chose General Electric veteran Robert Nardelli to be its CEO, the outsider is a dramatic failure. Nardelli’s manufacturing experience and managerial style were a poor fit for a retail company like Home Depot that was still very connected to its entrepreneurial roots.

If CEOs doing similar jobs in different businesses have a hard time moving from one industry to another, presidents without significant experience at the senior levels of the American political system certainly do, too. Some, like Lincoln, are extraordinary successes. Others, like Woodrow Wilson, have records that combine both triumphs and failures. And then there are some, like Warren Harding, who were simply unable to fulfill even the most basic responsibilities of the presidency.

Outsiders do sometimes bring a fresh perspective and approach to troubled organizations. They can make decisions no insider would have made. And ignorance of the outsiders’ true beliefs and capabilities can even work in their favor. The Republican Party chose Lincoln as its nominee in 1860 at least in part based on the belief that he was more moderate on slavery than William Henry Seward, his leading rival for the nomination. Once in office, however, the supposedly moderate Lincoln pursued the war effort far more aggressively than Seward likely ever would have.

There is no evidence, however, that the outsiders who will succeed can be identified before the fact. Sometimes the choice that no one else would make is simply the wrong one. In the corporate world, companies whose leaders make such choices often go bankrupt and are forgotten. In politics, the stakes can be much higher, with the added danger of radical ideologies, ill-conceived wars or simple corruption, as well as gross incompetence. Choosing a president without significant political experience, then, is more of a gamble than it might seem.

Gautam Mukunda is an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School; his upcoming book is on high-impact organizational leaders in politics and business. Rakesh Khurana is the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School and author of Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs.

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