About this site

I was a Governing Board Member of the San Carlos School District, elected November 2007 and again in November 2011. This site was originally used for the purpose of communicating with school district constituents, however now it is used for surfacing ideas and expressing opinions on various subjects in education, politics, business, or otherwise.

Please note that any opinion express here is purely personal and does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of anyone else or any organization with which I am, or have been, associated.

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February 2017
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All Business Experiences are not Created Equal…Certainly not for Future Presidents

The track record of businesspeople going into national political service is a mixed one at best. Our only president with an MBA, George W. Bush, reportedly had a difficult time managing the complexities of the office, and many of the other presidents with business backgrounds – such as Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter – also represent a mixed bag. It’s interesting to note that the most successful of this group, Harry Truman, was actually a bit of a failure as a businessman. Presidents of the United States tend to be lawyers or career politicians – why is this?

Clearly a lot of it has to do with the fundamental differences between business and government – structural and contextual distinctions that are often severely underappreciated by both political candidates and the public. Others have made these same observations, particularly for Presidents (see these articles from The Hill and Forbes).

Interestingly, current and former businesspeople are often more successful in state and local political offices. It’s possible this is due to less “political baggage” in these offices, including the smaller role of interest groups, the lesser influence of money, and other related factors. Particularly at the local level, elected officials are freed from much of the political dynamic because they often don’t have a desire to seek higher office.

More importantly, the type of business experience a person has plays a big role in how transferrable business success is to the political world. Even among most businesspeople who have sought and/or earned high political office, our current president is a special case. Despite the historically mixed track record of businesspeople in the White House, it’s no doubt that he was elected at least in part due to his perceived success in business. But regardless of one’s opinion on his political viewpoints, temperament, morality, or actual business success, it’s important to understand that Donald Trump wasn’t a businessman in the typical sense – the CEO of a large, public corporation – but rather the head of a private “family business” (albeit a large one).

This is a critical distinction because a family business is even more different from government than a typical shareholder-owned corporation is. Family businesses run in a much less complex environment. In the case of Donald Trump, he was the boss and made all of the decisions. He didn’t have to deal with any checks and balances, other than of course the scorecard of making a profit (which every business faces). Family business owners have no independent Board of Directors (if they have one at all); they have few, if any, other shareholders, and they are not even subject to public disclosure requirements. The entire business is essentially a closed book effectively run by one person, a person who is the “king” of that business. This is not to suggest that this is a bad model. Many American companies are “family businesses,” including my current one. But having a lifetime of experience in running your own show makes you even less qualified for politics, particularly national politics, than the historical collection of businesspeople-turned-politicians.

With Donald’s Trump narcissistic personality (which was no doubt only amplified by five decades of being the king of his own business), it’s not surprising he takes a “my way or the highway” attitude toward every task and every negotiation. But this approach tends not to work in government because the role is deliberately limited by design. Despite how much “power” the President (or any particular official) nominally has, politics is really a team sport. A President’s ability to get things done is predicated upon consensus and coalition building while of having billions of eyes on your every move.

The team dynamic of a family-owned business is also completely distinct from that of government. Employees of a family business are probably working there, in part, because they want to work for the owner. However, with the exception of top political appointees, most government employees are there for a different purpose and are often unmoved by the political philosophy of the person at the top (many stay through multiple administrations of different political parties). In choosing to often accept lower pay than they could make in the private sector, government employees are often there because they believe in the mission of their particular organization, its principles, and the relevant law. The recent examples of U.S. Parks employees’ standing up for their beliefs is a perfect example of how managing government employees is entirely different than managing those in the private sector (and particularly those in a family business). Even the attorneys in the Justice Department don’t really “work for” the President like a private attorney works for his/her boss. They are required to uphold the law and the Constitution, which can, at times, obligate them to oppose to their boss’ wishes.

However successful Donald Trump’s business career may have been, little in it would have caused him to understand this dynamic. Rather, it probably caused him to learn the opposite. Ultimately, his family business success prepared him to be ineffective as a national political leader. While many smart people have adapted to learn a completely new style of leadership, given his age, personality, and track record only a few weeks into office, it’s hard to imagine this old dog learning new tricks.

So, in addition to problems with his radical political agenda or questions about his mental stability, his business experience is likely to ultimately be his undoing. Donald Trump never really lived in a context where millions of people around the world can “throw sand in the gears” of his programs. The Constitution makes quite clear that the President is not really “in charge” in the way Donald Trump is used to being in charge. He doesn’t solely control the levers that affect our country, politically, economically, or otherwise.

His opponents are already figuring this out, and I suspect their tactics will only grow more sophisticated as the months go by. People are already leveraging the power inherent in our democratic style of government — whether it be sustained protests, boycotts, legal challenges, resistance from other countries, or grassroots campaigns aimed at supporters in Congress — to modify, stymy or block his initiatives.

Donald Trump may have run for the U.S. Presidency, in part, because he was hungry for power. If so, he failed to recognize the irony that, by winning, he would be giving up a fair bit of the control to which he had grown so accustomed.

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