Commentary: CEOs haven't been successful presidents

The Kansas City StarOctober 23, 2012 

Mitt Romney’s victory over Barack Obama in their first debate has raised the temperature on another bubbling argument — over whether CEOs can be good presidents.

Agree with Romney’s policy positions or not, in the debate he showed a CEO’s laserlike focus and the ability to organize talking points. All with a smoothed down demeanor, requisite in any good leader.

Many argue, however, that CEOs just don’t have what it takes to be president. And they have history on their side.

The vast majority of our presidents haven’t been businessmen. Rather, they spent most of their lives navigating the political arena. The best of them earned leadership chops in the executive branches of local and state governments, or in the military.

At the onset of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover wasn’t at all helped by his vast business experience.

When running the White House, Jimmy Carter seemed to rely more on his peanut farmer background than his military experience or term as governor of Georgia.

George H.W. Bush ran a successful company before turning to politics and government service. But when faced with a recession, he put too much faith in the business cycle turning up on its own.

That’s a natural instinct for an executive.

Political historians and others critical of business leaders as president grant that CEOs rose to the tops of their companies because of their smarts, judgment and temperament.

But, critics say, CEOs exercise almost dictatorial control. They’re used to being right. They’re used to people agreeing with them. They’re used to getting their way — and quickly.

Surrounded by yes men and women, they don’t realize how CEO power warps the ecology around them.

Running a company sure isn’t the same as running a democracy.

Presidents often don’t get their way. To achieve even minimal goals, they have to deploy a panoply of persuasive skills and tools.

Sometimes they have to whisper sweet nothings to other politicians. Sometimes they threaten to destroy them politically. Sometimes those in their own party prove to be enemies.

Compromise indeed becomes an art.

Through it all, presidents often try to do the right thing, even though that can be deleterious to their political futures. Voters are fickle.

Presidents and CEOs must differ, however, in their ultimate goals.

CEOs’ overriding goal is to guide their companies with ruthless efficiency to make a profit. Monetary reward is the motivation.

A president has multiple sets of goals: He’s the commander in chief over the country’s common defense, sets the conditions for long-term prosperity, and safeguards our liberties. He is the chief of a vast executive branch that executes the laws passed by Congress.

He oversees the nation’s finances, trying is to keep the budget close to balance and the debt manageable.

Though we want an efficient government, sometimes a president has to sacrifice efficiency for the greater good. The payoffs of building a road or a fighter plane may not be immediately obvious. And what makes up an “efficient” education or health care system anyway?

In running a government, making a profit is most often not even a consideration.

Think for a while about how difficult it is for a president to exercise power and manage these often-conflicting and contradictory goals. You can see why not many outright business leaders have even tried to be president.

I think the critics are selling CEOs a little short.

The best executives make sure they get good information from their staffs and encourage well-thought-out challenges to their decision-making. They don’t run roughshod over people.

Those who say CEOs exercise dictatorial control forget that in the best companies, executives often have to bow to smart and tough boards of directors.

The critics say that the drives for efficiency and profits are primary, but they don’t account for all the conflicting factors CEOs deal with. Just like presidents.

Suppliers, employees and customers all have demands. Regulators and local politicians get their say.

The real primary goal of a business, and thus a CEO, is to first design and produce a product or service that people want to buy. Profits come later, sometime years later.

Whether Romney can meld the best of his business background from Bain Capital and the best of his experience as governor of Massachusetts in the White House is, of course, unknowable.

He could blow it all in tonight’s debate, a town hall forum where he may have to be more adroit handling questions from regular people.

But whether we get a former CEO as president or not, critics of CEOs are overlooking something else:

Plenty of presidents with little or no business experience have turned out terribly, too.

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