- The executive is just the top manager. Personalities don’t matter much: extremes way off the centerline prototype can do well.
- The entrepreneurial world breaks into a couple of pieces: institution-building and deal-doing. Some are patient builders, and some are lone wolves.
This is business, not politics. And in that spirit, a disclosure: I am a political centrist, an anti-partisan, possibly because I can’t make up my mind, more likely so I can annoy everyone. But the comments here are about business.
What’s the President’s job about — really?
We have a three-branch government: judicial with obvious duties; Congress to propose and enact legislation, and an Executive branch. It’s easy to get confused about that third branch. Our president carries that title thanks to George Washington, who refused any and all of the imperial titles of Europe. Our President is commander in chief of the armed forces, but not much else.
Foreign policy is often subject to the advice and consent of Congress. The President may propose legislation, but Congress enacts; and the President may make rules and orders but only within judicial and legislative limitation. The President’s primary duty is to manage the executive branch, supervising cabinet officers and all of the departments of government.
All of this has worked well structurally, with two exceptions. The “Radical Republicans” during and after the Civil War held an absolute majority in Congress, and excessive power corrupted. In the 1960s, the term “imperial Presidency” was coined, mostly in reference to war powers asserted by Presidents, and an overall ascendancy of the Presidency over Congress.
When we elect a president, above all other things — even policies — we choose someone to run the executive branch. Foreign policy is a more solitary task than running the rest of government, but since WWII the national security apparatus has become huge, and running it requires an immense managerial effort.
There’s a lot we don’t know about economics. We debate energetically a ton of public policy without really knowing how it will turn out even if we got our way.
But we do know a great deal about management. Peter Drucker in the 1950s first identified “management” as a specific set of duties, and with measureable outcomes.
The executive is just the top manager. Personalities don’t matter much: extremes way off the centerline prototype can do well. Two very successful CEOs were Al Dunlap and Jack Welch — Dunlap in a series of corporate rescues became known as “Chainsaw Al,” while Welch built the fabulously successful GE, known inside and out as “Neutron Jack.”
Managerial work should match executive experience and talent
Success and failure has more to do with the type of managerial work matched with the experience and talent of the executive. The world is littered with fine salespeople who became abysmal sales managers and executives.
Another classic: the entrepreneurial genius who founds a startup is rarely able to develop the company beyond its startup phase. The exception proving the rule: Steve Jobs, one of a kind.
Running a big organization has a unique set of requirements. Experience is mandatory. Nobody lands at the top of a big organization and runs it well without experience with the animal.
Look back at our Presidents: in the last century and more, our most successful had been state governors (Clinton, Reagan, FDR, TR). Same for others, successful but less so (Wilson, Coolidge). Carter is the exception, but was a one-term governor and a self-described “outsider.”
Ike had run the biggest organization the world had ever seen, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Truman had been a superb Senator, and his Committee on the Conduct of the War was a striking managerial accomplishment. Bush I, Nixon, and LBJ were government lifers, learned its operations in senior jobs for decades.
Ms. Clinton is closest to this group, deeply experienced, but has never sat behind a buck-stops-here desk — Secretary of State is more cookie-pusher than executive. She did endure the painful rejection of her all-out health care effort in 1994, and we all learn from experiences like that.
The failures of Nixon and LBJ had nothing to do with their a management skills: personality and intractable war did them in, respectively. Hoover had a similar fate, overwhelmed by economic accident which no one knew how to resolve, but the highly capable manager is still celebrated as “the man who fed Europe” after WWI.
What happens with little experience?
Those with little experience did not fare well. Harding and Taft — ouch. Charming and brilliant JFK had been in Congress for a dozen years, but had never run anything, and complained in office how “hard it is to get anything done.” His greatest accomplishment was solitary, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Bush II served as Texas governor, but more an honorary post than active one, and his corporate leadership was more crony-provided than institution-building.
Mr. Obama is a fine professor of constitutional law without managerial experience. An example of the consequence: No matter how you feel about Obamacare, it failed operationally on rollout — it never occurred to Mr. Obama how much testing and development would be required to turn legislation into an enormous and functioning venture.
Look up these Presidents’ VPs and opponents, and you’ll see the same patterns, all the way back to founding the Republic.
Civilians are given to wishing government “runs like a business.” But it can’t. Business benefits from single-mindedness, and government must serve many disparate interests and needs.
Civilians also tend to have a vision of an “executive” as a cigar-chomping person barking orders. Not so. There are at least two broad classifications of executives: institutional and entrepreneurial. The former is acutely political work, giving orders more counter-productive than not. The latter lives and dies on quick-action instinct.
The entrepreneurial world breaks into a couple of pieces: institution-building and deal-doing. Even a Silicon Valley “unicorn” startup with a semi-imaginary business plan is an institution. “Deal guys” inhabit Wall Street and real estate.
Some deal guys are patient builders: Goldman, and in real estate, Trammell Crow and LaSalle Partners.
But in real estate, by far the dominant type is the lone wolf. To the degree they have institutions, they are more collections of assistants than free-standing organizations, productive without the “deal guy.”
Deal guys also must be flower-to-flower types, trying to find ones which work, and quickly abandoning the low-probability ones. Deal guys tend to have individual senses of ethical behavior, leaning toward “if it works, it worked,” not teamwork. The deals themselves tend to be measured as triumphs, not collective success.
You can tell by now where I’m going with all of this.
I’m not saying that Mr. Trump would fail if elected. But he would have the least management experience of any President or candidate in modern U.S. history.
Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker based in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com.