Since the launch of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has based his qualifications on his experience as a businessperson — that his financial acumen would make him a good president. I see this as an incredible opportunity for voters to finally get a clear picture of a candidate’s true colors — if they are willing to look for the truth.
My father was an entrepreneur. He often reminded me “we all leave footprints” in business; how we act and what we do is captured in personal memories of those with whom we worked.
Building a business is a multiple-step endeavor: Find a market, hire people, build a product, sell that product and hopefully have a lifelong relationship with a customer. Each step of the way, actual human beings are on the other side of the transaction, with their own needs. How you get a customer to agree with you, and find a common ground, is a core skill of successful business people.
My father’s point was a simple one. Unlike politics, where a candidate can often spin the past, or reinvent him or herself through great public relations, those varied steps in growing an enterprise are harder to whitewash — there are just too many of them.
To truly understand the character of a business person, let’s take advantage of the proof out there for all to see. Not simply in the achievement of the success, but in how they climbed to that point.
Business people come in all shapes and sizes, with a multitude of personal ways to negotiate and gather resources. Some look at the world as a zero sum game where every transaction has a winner and a loser while others believe that both sides in a negotiation can benefit equally. Some operate as if a negotiation is never over, and deals can be reopened after they have closed. Another tactic is to lie during negotiations. Then again, I have seen smart people knowingly lose out on opportunities because they told the truth.
For years, I have worked with psychologists who specialize in leadership development and have coached hard-working people on how to grow successful businesses. One recurring lesson I have seen imparted is that under stress, people return to their core behavior, their own very personal winning strategy if you will — personality traits they rely on to get what they want.
We learn our personal winning strategies when we are very young. Whether it’s to be a bully, to collaborate, to be analytical or to cajole, we began applying those skills in our nursery school sandbox.
So because business is often a highly stressful place where we end up showing our true nature and are most authentic when engaged in commerce, we are fortunate as the voting public to have a candidate this time around whose record we can examine in ways beyond the rudimentary count of how many buildings or widgets carry the company name. We can ask tough questions to those who transacted with Trump, and perhaps saw his true, instinctive nature. His candidacy provides us with a transparency that contrasts with customary norms of a campaign, where voters must work hard to see past spin and public relations.
Business is at its core apolitical. There are many ways to win. Of course, I am sympathetic to the view that a successful business person would be more desirable than a failure! However, to ignore the how of winning, is to accept a double standard. Americans cannot give a candidate the benefit of touting business success without also subjecting that potential commander in chief to the scrutiny of what tactics were used to achieve that success.
The complexity of being president, and the temperament that the job requires, require us to understand those who seek to lead us. We all leave footprints. That’s not partisan — that’s business.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.