Do business leaders make good politicians — or presidents?

by Richard A. Lee

The topics dominating the discussion about the Republican primary for president – Rick Perry’s inability to recall the details of his own campaign proposal and the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain – may be captivating, but they don’t tell us what we need to determine who is best equipped to serve in the Oval Office.

Sure, we’d like our leaders to be pillars of virtue, but there have been some very effective presidents, governors and mayors whose personal lives were not exactly role models. Likewise, Perry’s gaffe in the CNBC debate was downright embarrassing, but should our judgments on the next leader of the free world be based on a 53-second YouTube moment? There must be better ways to gauge who would be a good president.

Mitt Romney would have us believe that a proven track record of running a successful business will produce similar results in the White House. It’s a message that resonates well with voters who often lament that government should run more like a business. It sounds good in theory, but how it plays out in practice is a different story.

Leadership in the public sector requires a different skill set than in the business world. CEOs can put their initiatives into action without having to negotiate and broker deals with legislatures and without worrying about transparency, public opinion polls and re-election.

Take former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine for example. With experience as CEO of Goldman Sachs, he appeared to be a perfect candidate to lead fiscally challenged New Jersey. But Corzine – even after having spent a few years in the U.S. Senate – did not have political skills that matched his fiscal experience. After a tumultuous first term, he failed to win re-election, and returned to Wall Street (and now is at the center of a major fiscal controversy).

When I was part of a new administration in Woodbridge Township, N.J., in the early 1990s, we thought it would be a good idea to tap some of the fiscal and management expertise in the Fortune 500 companies operating in the township. We invited them to explore the municipal budget and develop recommendations to run our government more cost effectively.

Their proposals would have saved money, but they were not feasible – unless we could have figured out legal and politically viable means of eliminating labor unions, Civil Service regulations, and costly programs that provided needed services, such as health-care screenings for individuals who otherwise would be unable to afford them.

So, if business skills are not the answer, what qualities should we look for in the candidates to determine who is best to lead the nation?

When I was working at the Hall Institute of Public Policy, I asked that question to Michael P. Riccards, the institute’s executive director, who also is a presidential scholar.

Leadership was at the top of Riccards’ list, but he noted that our greatest presidents not only were great leaders; they also stood for something greater than themselves. They were linked to a larger ideology.

Secondly, he said great presidents need the ability to assemble a good, working team. Like a successful baseball manager, they need to bring out the best among a group of highly talented, often egocentric individuals and convince them to work together.

Making the right judgments also helps, Riccards said, as does a little savvy – the ability to live off the capital of past presidents who laid the groundwork for programs that achieve success after they leave office. Building consensus also is critical, but very difficult in today’s political environment, he said.

Lastly, Riccards said a great president must be articulate in the media of his or her time.

I am sure there are compelling arguments for other factors that make great presidents, and I also am certain that some people would disagree with Riccards’ suggestions. But as a starting point for discussion, they are much better place to begin than Rick Perry’s debating skills or charges leveled against Herman Cain that may or may not be true.

Richard A. Lee spent more than 30 years as a journalist and government communications professional in New Jersey. He now is an assistant professor in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University near Olean, N.Y. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter @richleeonline.

3 replies »

  1. Richard, I’m glad to see another New Jerseyan with Bona’s credentials on the blog. Welcome.

    When we’re talking about “effective leadership,” I think the biggest difference we’re seeing now isn’t so much in the presidency as it is in Congress. With the major exception of the healthcare overhaul, Bush and Obama have been pretty similar on multiple fronts. You could make a strong argument that neither has been much of a leader, but I think most Americans would argue things are worse now than at any point during the Bush administration.

    As far as Congress is concerned, the biggest change today from then is that both parties are equally matched and unable or unwilling to negotiate, talk or generally work together. Say what you will about old mainstays like Ted Kennedy and younger versions of Pete Domenici and John McCain, but they regularly reached across the aisle make sure their agendas went through. That isn’t happening today, and it’s really gumming up the government’s workings. Take a look at the so called Super Committee as proof.

    Perhaps this falls under the ideology or the team management, but a leader has to be able to recognize the common good and move to serve it. Our political system has become so fractured today that I think our elected officials have lost sight of the fact that our country is that common good, not their personal political ideology.

  2. How would Perry know? Outside of summer jobs selling books door-to-door and the seven years after he left the Air Force when he worked with is father on the cotton farm, he’s been a government employee. He’s been in government since 1984. After 27 years collecting a check from the tax payers, i’m not sure what credentials he has for discussing life outside government.

    In any case, good point. No, business leaders don’t necessarily make good political leaders; in fact, they probably don’t make good political leaders at all. Americans are easy prey for the argument that they do because we’ve been taught to worship money and business…so of course, when we accept the false equivalency that the government is like a business, we’re ready to also accept that government should be led by businessmen.