Running the Country Like a Business

To many of his supporters in the 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s appeal hinged on the fact that he was a businessman. (Never mind that Trump has not, in fact, been a very good businessman over the years, as the Economist reported back in February 2016: “Mr Trump’s performance has been mediocre compared with the stockmarket and property in New York.”) According to these supporters, the problem with American government is career politicians. The remedy? Let a businessman like Trump run the country.

This sentiment was captured in a recent statement by a Republican-leaning independent voter and former Trump supporter, now critical of his work: “I wanted him to go in and be a businessman, not someone that’s on Twitter all the time…If he wants to be a businessman in there and run it like a business, then he needs to be like a boss would be and not a high school kid” (All Things Considered, 8/10/2017). The idea here seems to be that Trump has failed to live up to the ideal of President-as-businessman, but that the ideal remains intact. In short, this person would still like to see a real businessman — a “boss” — in charge of the country.

I take it for granted that Trump has made a hash of the Presidency so far; most media beat that drum repeatedly these days. The more interesting question, for me, is whether putting a businessperson in the White House or running the country like a business is ever a good idea.

When viewed from a certain angle, the idea is absurd. What could it even mean to run a government like a business? Should the government sell things? Should the government aim to turn a profit? Should it aim to expand its “market share” (e.g., its territory or number of citizens)? Should the President be paid a salary that is 300 times the wage of the average American worker? Let’s hope not for all of our sakes. Given the absurdity of this sense of “running the government like a business,” supporters of the idea must have something else in mind.

I suspect the more defensible (though, still ultimately incorrect) idea lurking nearby is that business executives are thought to be better leaders than career politicians, and thereby make for better Presidents. Businesspeople are practical (the thought goes), they know how to get things done, and they are accountable to rigorous standards of success. In contrast, career politicians (on this line of thought) are just interested in holding onto power, they rarely get anything useful done, and they are not properly accountable for their failings.

I think this contrast is wrongheaded for a lot of reasons, but I want to set that issue aside to focus in on the question of whether successful executive business leadership is really a model we ought to try to reproduce in the Presidency.

At first glance, this question might seem ill-defined. In fact, there are many different approaches to business leadership, and some of these might be more amenable to the Presidency than others. At one extreme, some business executives are very authoritarian and this feature is essential to their success. They call the shots, and this is how they get so much done, unencumbered by the disagreement of others or by group process. Donald Trump is a textbook case of this kind of business executive.

At the other end of the spectrum there are business executives who are more collaborative, who think listening to dissenting opinions can be helpful, and who tend to involve others substantively in decision-making processes. (Of course, most business executives lie somewhere between these two extremes.) So, it might seem unclear which kind of business leader we mean when we claim that good business executives make for good Presidents.

However, in the end, I think these distinctions between kinds of business executives are actually irrelevant to the issue at hand, since there is a fundamental feature of executive business leadership that unites these different kinds. That feature is bottom-line policy-making authority. To put a slogan to it, “businesses have kings.”

It’s obvious that the more authoritarian business executive exercises this sort of royal policy-making authority. However, even the more collaborative business executive ultimately retains this kind of power and is called to use it from time to time. Indeed, even when the collaborative business executive listens to others and involves them in decision-making processes, she ultimately makes the decision.

I don’t mean to say that executives make every decision relating to their business; obviously they typically delegate most of them. Rather, my point is that for every decision in which an executive has some decision-making stake, she ends up being the bottom line, even if she just decides that someone else’s idea is the best one. In this way, even the collaborative business executive ends up, ultimately, looking something like a king — albeit a king with many counselors.

Yes, in many companies there will also be a governing board that could eject the CEO if they or shareholders think she is not making good policy decisions over time. And yes, if the CEO is wise she will listen to the counsel of the smart people around her and follow their advice, or the wisdom of the group. But, in the end, business allows a military, dictatorial leadership style if this is what the CEO wants. And given how practical this kind of authority can be (allowing a leader to get things done despite resistance), I think this is often what supporters of the businessperson-for-President model are going for.

Now, my point in all this is that the kind of leadership we require of a President is very different from that of a business executive at just this point. The Presidency was explicitly designed not to allow the leadership of a king. The executive branch can make some independent policy decisions (executive orders), but the system is set up so that the most important ones must be made together by Congress and the President, under the watchful eye of a yet further branch of government (the judiciary).

This system of checks and balances exhibited in the American form of democracy requires that leading the country be a team sport. It was designed this way so that we could avoid the capricious self-serving whims of dictatorial kings that litter world history. Indeed, leading the country is a team sport to such a degree that if the President and Congress cannot come to an agreement over a policy decision, then no decision gets made. By design, there is no final arbiter who can step in and settle the matter, as a CEO might in the business world. This feature has been vividly on display in the recent stalemate over healthcare reform.

My sense is that much of Trump’s recent frustration as President and much of the chaos in the White House derive from a fundamental conflict between the distinctive feature of business leadership (the ability to dictate from on high, which Trump exemplifies maximally) and the distinctive feature of democratic government leadership (that leadership must be a team sport).

Am I saying that business leaders can never be good Presidents, or that we ought not to elect them to government office? Absolutely not; business leaders can become excellent government leaders and Presidents. What I am saying, though, is that if a CEO is to become an effective President, she will have to shift to a fundamentally different mode of leadership that does not rely, ultimately, on the power to dictate. The shift will be harder for CEOs who fall toward the more authoritative side of the business leadership spectrum, and perhaps easier for those who are more collaborative.

So, in the end, there is something wrong with the idea of getting a business boss to run the country. There is a fundamental incompatibility between what is distinctive about the leadership of an effective CEO and the leadership of a good President. CEOs are kings. The U.S. President is not a king. Donald Trump’s present floundering is partly attributable to those facts.

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