Ever since Howard Schultz revealed that he’s thinking of running for president, many people are revisiting a time-honored question: Could a business CEO ever be a good choice for the nation’s highest office?
But that’s not quite the right question, as it lumps together people with very different backgrounds and skill sets. The “CEO/businessperson” category breaks down into at least three major types.
First, there are multinational company CEOs (like Rex Tillerson and Carly Fiorina) who are products of long careers with steady rises up through bureaucratic hierarchies. Some of them indeed preside over organizations whose economic value, scope of trade and diplomatic issues surpass those of most of the world’s nations.
These people are political animals, and while they may be a little frustrated with government’s slow pace and red tape, it really is not that different from what they have faced in traditional organizations. They tend to be smooth, charismatic, diplomatic types who succeed by motivating others, choosing top talent and delegating wisely.
A second, very different group is made up of entrepreneurial CEOs (like Ross Perot, recent Senate candidate Linda McMahon, or — for trivia fans — locomotive entrepreneur Peter Cooper in 1876) who may be more likely to think outside the box about policy matters but less capable of building coalitions or containing their disdain for bureaucracy. They often have rough edges and act like loose cannons. These types are really a tough match for government roles because they are used to having a lot of power over their organizations since, after all, they founded them. For the same reasons they aren’t a fit for corporate situations, they aren’t fit for government leadership.
Finally, there are the family business scions who inherited their position and have never been fire-able. It’s a category we could put Steve Forbes, Donald Trump and George W. Bush in, and it’s made up of wild cards since someone can get to this top-dog position without having either of the prior two categories’ executive upsides. On the other hand, their upbringing can give them the kind of ease in rubbing shoulders with elites that can be such an advantage for members of political dynasties.
So how about Howard Schultz? He has the benefit of being a hybrid of the first two types: a growth and innovation-oriented leader who wound up presiding over a complex multinational with both shareholders and a huge workforce to inspire. He might represent exactly the type of businessperson who could be an effective government leader.
Schultz also has that profound advantage of the modern-age presidential candidate: no voting record. This contributed to Donald Trump’s ability to win the nomination — and also Barack Obama’s, given his short Senate tenure and propensity to miss votes. They could speak in broad, ambiguous ways and different wings of their parties could project on them what they wanted to believe because there was very little in the way of past votes to hang them on.
This relates to another potential advantage: his self-positioning as a centrist. The fact that nominees are selected by only those people siding with a party has created dynamics by which the selected nominees are generally those who appeal most to the extremes of their respective parties. Schultz’s avowed plan to “run as a centrist independent, outside of the two-party system” implies a belief, first, that centrists cannot win party nominations these days and, second, that a centrist nominee would, if nominated, actually have a better chance of winning in a general election.
All this, of course, does not mean that Schultz stands a frappucino’s chance in hell of becoming president. As a businessperson who is extremely familiar with the advantages of scale and strict operational standards, he must be acutely aware that he cannot compete as a third-party candidate. No one wins without a major party machine working for them on the ground. So we should probably assume that — because he is a strong and creative, strategic thinker — he is aware that he can’t win the presidency, and he is instead valuing the chance to get his message out, or the leverage he might gain as a spoiler to influence policy.
What needs to be emphasized most is that we should not use the Trump presidency to reach any conclusion about the advisability of electing a “CEO president.” In an era of highly mobile “knowledge workers,” the trend is toward corporations becoming more transparent, democratic and imbued with social purpose. Far from the command-and-control autocrats of the past, these sprawling organizations require leaders who can attract, inspire and empower vast workforces. Effective business executives have the basic skill set for political leadership. Schultz may not get far as a candidate, but he won’t be the last business executive to make a run for it.