Do CEOs make better political leaders?

Only if they have emotional security,sound political judgment and the sense of being an instrument for a larger mission

Written by New York Times | Published: January 16, 2012 2:51 am

David Brooks

There are two questions concerning Mitt Romney’s service at the private equity firm Bain Capital. The narrower question is: Did Bain help ailing companies and add value to the economy or did it plunder dying firms? The larger question is: Does Romney’s success in business tell us anything about whether he would be a successful president?

Let’s tackle the bigger question here. At first blush,business success would seem to be good preparation for political success. A CEO learns to set priorities,manage organisations and hone analytic skills. If you look back over history,you see that while business success can sensitise a politician to the realities other executives face,there’s little correlation between business success and political success. The traits that actually correlate with successful presidencies have deeper roots.

First,successful presidents tend to be emotionally secure. They have none of the social resentments and desperate needs that plagued men like Richard Nixon. Instead they were raised,often in an aristocratic family,with a sense that they were the natural leaders of the nation. They were infused,often at an elite prep school,with a sense of obligation and responsibility to perform public service. Whether it is a George Washington,a Franklin or Theodore Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy,this sort of president enters the White House with ease and confidence,is relatively unscathed by the criticism of the crowd,is able to separate the mask he must wear for public display from the real honest self he knows himself to be.

Second,great presidents tend to have superb political judgment. A president with political judgment has a subtle feel for the texture of his circumstance. He has a feel for where opportunities lie,what will go together and what will never go together. This implicit knowledge is developed slowly in people like Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson who have spent decades as political insiders and who have a rich repertoire of experiences to draw on. It also comes from voracious social contact. It comes to leaders who have a compulsive desire to be around people and who can harvest from a million social encounters a sense of what people want and can deliver.

Third,great leaders have often experienced crushing personal setbacks. This experience,whether it’s Lincoln’s depression or FDR’s polio,not only gives them a sense of sympathy for those who are suffering,but a personal contact with frailty. They are resilient when things go wrong. They know how dependent they are on others,how prone they are to overconfidence. They are both modest,because they have felt weakness,and aggressive,because they know how hard it is to change anything.

Finally,great leaders tend to have an instrumental mentality. They do not feel the office is about them. They are just God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause. This sense of being an instrument gives them an organising purpose. It gives them a longer perspective,so they don’t get distracted by ephemera. It means their administration marches in one direction,even though it is flexible and willing to accept incremental gains along the way.

In sum,great presidents are often aristocrats and experienced political insiders. They experience great setbacks. They feel the presence of God’s hand on their every move. Unfortunately,we’re not allowed to talk about these things openly these days. We disdain elitism,political experience and explicit God-talk. Great failure is considered “baggage” in today’s campaign lingo.

Today’s candidates have to invent bogus story lines to explain their qualifications to be president — that they are innocent outsiders or business whizzes. In reality,Romney’s Bain success is largely irrelevant to the question of whether he could be a good president. The real question is whether he has picked up traits like emotional security,political judgment and an instrumental mindset from his upbringing and the deeper experiences of life.

The New York Times

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