Someone recently asked me, “Do CEOs make great political leaders?” My reply? An emphatic, “Maybe.” I suspect my answer was not what this person wanted to hear. We certainly have a good sample in today’s political world: President Donald Trump; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam are just a few.
It seems voters are fed up with unbalanced budgets and the feeling that nothing in Washington or their state gets done. They apparently want to turn to CEOs to fix things fast and now. As they old saying goes: They want to run government like a business.
But does private sector success apply to politics?
Gifted CEOs provide a compelling vision for their companies. Great CEOs of large, complex organizations are able to look into the future.They paint a vivid picture of where they want to go and what their organization should look like in the years ahead. Too many of our politicians today find themselves mired in the urgency of the moment, stuck in endless tactical tasks nearly all short-term in nature.
Ask yourself: Can you as a business leader articulate with clarity a vision for the nation or for your state? If you can do this, that’s a first step, but that’s not all. Can you sell that vision to a diverse range of voters? Can you stand by principle but work across the aisle with the other side to keep things moving for the common good? Voters want results, but politics in democracy are not always tidy. Great political leaders figure this out.
The best CEOs are also keepers of their company culture. Culture is defined as how we behave with one another. It’s our set of values. Companies and organizations that have a “good” culture can tie that culture directly to increased performance and better results, healthier morale and less turnover. All this helps lead to profits and a stronger bottom line.
We all know those cultures where employees hate to go to work; the climate is toxic and dysfunctional. CEOs can come into a situation like this and fire people who are not good cultural fits. Politicians can’t fire legislators.
Yet, too many of our politicians seem to have forgotten that culture matters. In their own quest for results, they often ignore “non-essentials” such as civility, respect, decency and honor. They seem to forget the importance of trust. And the simple fact that, if you want to be a leader, you need people to follow you. A truly great CEO never forgets these things. He or she gets the link between culture and performance. In business and in politics, you know good culture when you see it. There is a market for it in both.
CEOs set strategy. Strategy involves the allocation of scarce resources to help aim us toward our vision. These limited resources include time, talent, money and focus. Strategy defines what we say “yes” to and when we say “no.” CEOs must identify and sell a strategy that their team can align with and get behind. That’s important because today most people want to work for an organization where they believe they can make a difference. They thrive when strategy is aligned with purpose.
Getting strong alignment around clarity of purpose is never easy in business. It’s arguably even harder, though, in politics. There’s a seemingly never-ending barrage of rock throwing. Even within your own political party, you have diverse constituencies often pulling in opposite directions, with different priorities.
The CEO jumping into politics would do well to keep in mind these core differences. And in politics, no matter the difficulties, our politicians would do well to consider this: If you cannot lead with a sense of real purpose, you will end up not leading at all. Crack a history book if you need reminding.
More than they know — or are willing to admit — leaders in business and politics can learn from each other. Machiavelli said, for example, “Beware flatterers.” We all have blind spots, and this is a problem in both disciplines. We benefit enormously from having smart people around us who sometimes see things we do not see and who are not afraid to speak truth to power. A guaranteed way to crash and burn? Fill your leadership team with people who fawn over you around the clock.
Can a CEO become a great political leader? Of course. Just know that the job is not identical to running a company. When you work for “the people” your results are not just profits or loss. Success or failure is measured differently. The process of democracy can be maddeningly inefficient. Yet, at the same time, some of the building blocks of great business — vision, culture and strategy linked to purpose — may be exactly what our politics need today.
— John Dame & Jeffrey Gedmin
John Dame is an executive team consultant and leadership strategist based in Harrisburg. Jeffrey Gedmin, a former director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and senior adviser at Blue Star Strategies.
This piece has also appeared in the following outlets: