I am struck by the current fascination with the idea of a businessperson being a desirable presidential candidate, and hope that we are not so desperate for a better economy that we are waiting for a knight in shining armor to be our next president.
I get why we are charmed by such contenders. We’re wired to admire successful business people. The concepts of self-determination and entrepreneurship are deep seated in the American Dream. Our country is built on the premise that entrepreneurial patterns work. Athletes, spiritual leaders, business owners and even politicians are admired when they “make it happen” through their own hard work and diligence – the ideal of the individual triumphing over all obstacles is deep within us. It’s how we like to see ourselves as a nation.
And so, it is almost inevitable that at a time of exceptional distrust with existing government institutions and process, Americans want to make things better by considering a business person as leader. The ascendancy of Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump as presidential candidates is not at all surprising, nor will be the others that will inevitably follow. But, if we are going to have candidates who are admired because they are business leaders, then we should also evaluate them not against the standards of career politicians but against the standards of business leadership.
First of all, let’s acknowledge our expectations for these candidates, starting with the fact that business and government are very different things. Business is primarily about profit, and maximizing economic benefit for business owners. Government is about serving the public interest by providing a support structure for society. We can argue as a nation about where that structure should end, but in a highly complex nation of 330 million people, it’s hard to argue against some basic ground rules. That is what government is about – it’s a reflection of the society we build as a democracy and a way to organize ourselves. So, while we can apply business processes and professionalism to government (and arguably this should occur more frequently), that is not the same thing as running a government as a business. Notwithstanding their frustration, Americans should not confuse the two.
If we are going to evaluate presidential candidates on their business leadership skills, let’s look at some attributes I have seen most often described as necessary for success. During my recent interview with retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, he described how successful business leadership is based in self-criticism and a willingness to delegate authority and accountability as he now counsels chief executives in a broadening number of Fortune 500 companies.
A number of years ago, Carly Fiorina noted at an event which I moderated that empathy was a core business leader skill. More than once over the years I have heard Ted Leonsis remark business leadership begins with optimism and vision. Steve Case tells our nation’s entrepreneurs regularly that business success relies upon a willingness to change and adapt as new information becomes available.
Business leadership – accomplishing big things and leading change – is very different from doing a single deal. It’s too optimistic to believe that just because a candidate is seen by some as synonymous with American business success, such as Donald Trump, that he will “cut red tape” and successfully solve immigration tensions with Mexico by building walls on that country’s dime — all thanks to his sheer force of personality.
We must not let our frustration with the status quo blind us to the best parts of successful business leadership, and the skills that a business leader can bring. I am all in on bringing the best business minds and leaders into our government, as president or otherwise, but let’s evaluate them against true professional accomplishments and positive personality traits, and not as a man on horseback.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and chairman of Amplifier Ventures, a venture capital fund focusing on national security technology innovation. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program launching nationwide on Sept. 20.