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A public policy blog from AEI
“[President Trump] has what you might think of as autocratic tendencies, which were probably perfectly normal in the business world but are very problematic in the political world.” This statement by an academic from an elite East Coast university was quoted recently in Vox and caught my attention for all the wrong reasons. It’s a mischaracterization of free enterprise, and an insult to much of the business world.
While most American presidents have not come from illustrious careers in the business world, they share many of the same responsibilities and considerations that CEOs and leaders of industry have. These range from managing large, multi-faceted organizations with numerous divisions to helping shape a budget, persona, and vision for an organization that is embedded in a global economy.
Leaders in the business community are anything but autocratic — they are accountable. CEOs have to respond to public opinion, customers, investors, shareholders, and board members. They have to find and nurture the talent in their employee base that enables innovation. CEOs work on countless levels in their firm to develop consensus and buy-ins for their ideas and initiatives. Moreover, these leaders regularly worry about talent development and employee retention in addition to having to meet numerous outside demands, be it from powerful agents in business and in the media, markets, funders, legal constraints, ethical norms, and governmental regulation and oversight.
Much like the American president, CEOs have to play a delicate balancing act among numerous constituencies. Acting as a despot is a sure way to be shown the door.
“Much like the American president, CEOs have to play a delicate balancing act among numerous constituencies. Acting as a despot is a sure way to be shown the door.”
Despite the seemingly endless fascination with a few unique and visionary CEOs such as Steve Jobs and certain unique cases like the Trump organization, a typical CEO is nothing like Jobs or even Trump as seen on The Apprentice. Fixating on the exceptions is irresponsible for it ignores the tens of thousands of responsible, hard-working leaders who bring success to their firms. Being a tyrant on the job is not normal in the business world, nor is it acceptable in the political world where repeated interactions with other powerful actors is also the norm.
It’s true that leaders, including US presidents and CEOs, inherently want more power and fewer obstacles around them to achieve their agendas and initiatives, but this does not make them despots.
While presidents of both parties have regularly used executive orders and the power of the pen to promote their agendas, they are in reality constrained by Congress, the Courts, and voters. CEOs themselves are constrained by their boards, the markets, and their customers. Both presidents and CEOs have to regularly make tough decisions that could have significant impacts on innovation, safety, and the health and well-being of employees, clients or citizens. These decisions are rarely embraced by all, and CEOs and presidents alike are regularly and inevitably criticized. But it is truly surprising to think that one would realistically argue that dictatorial tendencies are common among business and political leaders in the free world.
In the post-war era, American presidents have been caught up in currents of history, forced to react to certain events. The record of presidential successes and failures confirms that presidents are not the master of their own fates. They have to contend with events and circumstances well beyond their control, often diverging from their original presidential platform or personal policy inclinations. President George W. Bush, for instance, wanted to be an education president but realized on 9/11 that history would force him to become a war-time president — a role he never wanted.
So, instead of mischaracterizing those who lead the business world as having dictatorial dispositions, Americans should appreciate those who work in the business community which supports the American economy. They should also embrace the idea of a business executive coming into a position of leadership in the public sector. While the current occupant of the Oval Office may be upsetting to many, US post-war governmental bureaucracy has ballooned, and being president in America has become increasingly a managerial role in addition to a political one.
Real managerial experience and deep intellectual expertise in decision-making is becoming harder than ever to find. So instead of shunning a sector which has the deepest concentration of people with the talent and experience of having had to manage divergent factors and trade-offs, we should embrace those in the business world who can play an invaluable role in managing the White House and effecting real policy change.
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