Do We Really Want Our President Qualified to Run HP?

Republicans and Democrats alike are crucifying Carly Fiorina for saying her own candidate, John McCain, is unqualified to run a technology business.It’s odd to hear a spokesman for the Obama campaign, which only last week defended community organizing as good preparation for political office, suggest that a much different ability is now a prerequisite.

It’s odder still to hear Republicans accept that premise, arguing that McCain or Palin are up to the job. No one who has ever run a large technology business thinks that McCain or Obama, much less Palin or Biden, is qualified to run a large technology business.

At the very least, it requires an interest in technology, or business. Which is just another way of saying that setting government economic policies isn’t the same as getting a printer to ship on time. Only in countries like North Korea are we outraged if someone implies that the Dear Leader can’t beat Michael Jordan at basketball, or perform brain surgery.

Yet why are politicians so eager to be seen as CEOs? As former CEO Dick Cheney would tell you, the qualities that many people admire in a CEO – the single-minded pursuit of an objective, with a long-discarded regard for whether people like you or not — can create problems in political office. Undeterred, Sarah Palin now describes herself as the CEO of Alaska. And George Bush’s governing style has often admiringly been compared to that of a CEO.

The image these would-be CEOs seek to project is one we are now eager to admire. Whereas Americans once rooted for Teddy Roosevelt in his battles against tycoons, it seems like the public respects the imperial power and instinct for plunder of executives rather than politicians’ mealy-mouthed idealism and legislative give-and-take. The pied piper of the preceding generation was John Kennedy; today it is probably Steve Jobs.

But the charter of the President is so much larger and more humane than running a lemonade stand, even one of HP’s size. When Michael Dukakis said “it’s about competence” we all immediately recognized he was wrong: yes, someone like the CEO of HP has to be competent, but the presidency has a moral dimension that is, well, inspiring.

The best thing about Obama is that he chose not to be a CEO, instead devoting his time to helping poor people get a better life. The best thing about John McCain is that he served his country in a war. Sure, maybe if they’d spent their youth climbing the greasy pole at HP, they’d be ready to run HP. But I’m glad they didn’t.


  • Nils

    I’m with you 100%. The stupidest trope in American politics is the railing against “career politicians.” The vast majority of people can only ever be really good at (at most) one thing, and while I get the transition from military to political leadership, the transition from, say, sports or business seems much more obscure. Bush’s choice to run in 2000 as “the first MBA President” (perhaps ironic given his own dubious success in business) more than anything reflected the cult of the CEO which was so prevalent in the 1990s. I think that cult’s abated, though.

  • Glenn Kelman

    Hi Nils, you’ve flipped my argument. I was saying that a life in politics doesn’t prepare you to be a CEO, and also that our politicians shouldn’t aspire to govern like CEOs.

    You’re saying that a life as a CEO — or any life except that of a politician — hardly prepares you to be a politician. I disagree insofar as I think people from other walks of life can succeed in politics, provided they understand the shift toward public accountability that politics entails. Bloomberg seems like a good example of this shift working out well for the citizens of New York.

  • Sasha Aickin

    Glenn, it’s odd to hear you argue that being CEO doesn’t have a moral dimension, as you’re always hammering us (in a good way) with the Redfin culture speech. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard you give that speech (10? 20?), but what sticks with me is that we have to (a) respect each other and (b) do the right thing, morally and ethically.

    And while I agree that being a good CEO of HP requires an actual interest in what HP does, it also requires the ability to be a great manager, which is, I think, a transferable skill. So while the president is certainly a moral leader, he or she is also, very importantly, a day-to-day manager. Soaring rhetoric or tough talk ring hollow if you hire cronies who can’t manage the agencies that make up the government.

    In other words, being able to be a good CEO may be necessary for being president, but not sufficient.

    And on a somewhat less theoretical note, the next president arguably *will* be a CEO: of Fannie, Freddie, AIG, and whatever firms we bail out next week. It might behoove him or her to have a few CEO skills in his back pocket.

  • Glenn Kelman

    Sasha, I really like your last point. I hadn’t thought of that. When I read that the government has replaced the management of AIG, Fannie and Freddie I do wonder: with whom?

    As for whether a CEO can be a moral leader, I agree that he or she can, but it seems that what the public admires about CEOs is their relative lack of thoughtfulness or moral qualms: the decisive leader, untrammeled by Congress or the courts, whose success is measured in dollars.

    When I hear a governor described as the CEO of Alaska, I wonder if she wants to be measured in terms of people’s quality of life or by some more ruthless metric. And I wonder too how the public would react if a politician’s management style were described as imperial or monarchical rather than CEO-like? Is the CEO of Alaska just the Queen of Alaska, with term limits?

    Please note, I am not taking a political position for McCain or for Obama here, just arguing against politicians wanting to be like CEOs, or even being judged as CEOs.

  • Brian Brady

    “running a lemonade stand”

    That’s pretty funny.

    I think that the CEO represents the ultimate in the Truman-esque ideology, “The buck stops here”.

    We like strong leaders. Good CEOs remind us that a strong leader can produce amazing results. Hence, those seeking the ultimate executive position will want to mirror that image.

  • Kim

    “Good CEOs remind us that a strong leader can produce amazing results”.

    First comment – need definition of ‘strong’ and ‘amazing results’.

    Second comment – goals of government are different than business. The goal of american business appears to be mostly concerned with making money (selling more or reducing costs). The goal of american government is about managing social and legal institutions – securing and improving the quality of life of our citizens.

    The goals are often at conflict – think water quality, financial system transparency, military defense, public health.

    Business owners are looking for ways to reduce costs, while government’s job is to protect the quality of life and rights of all those governed.

    Leaders in our government need to be able to analyze and balance the nation’s survival and security with individual security and individual freedom to pursue happiness.

    We need leaders that can understand the impacts, and weigh the short and longterm costs associated with making these very difficult decisions. The costs are often not monetary. I believe that this is the reason that thoughtfulness, understanding multiple perspectives, moral courage and unselfishness, knowing when and where to get information and resources you do not possess are crucial to the leader of our country. Budget balancing is a skill which many possess, good judgement concerning consequences of a decision for a nation are not so easily found. Our future leader needs to attract knowledgable, disparate thinking experts and leaders of other countries, and weigh the validity and consequences of following any advice they might give.

    I believe this is part of what Glenn was implying.

  • James Chen

    I would love to have a President who has experience with managing a company. There’s something to be said about learning how businesses cope with taxes, regulation, employment law, and the like. I believe that candidates with experience in both the public and private sectors are more qualified than candidates with only one type of experience.

    I will also note that persons working in the private sector can also contribute their talents as non-profit sector as volunteers. It’s much harder the other way around, although not impossible.

  • gabriel riel

    I would love to have a President who has experience with managing a company. There's something to be said about learning how businesses cope with taxes, regulation, employment law, and the like.

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