Politics

Why Do Business Stars Make Bad Politicians?

Top CEO business women Carla Fiorina and Meg Whitman both crashed and burned in this week’s midterm elections—Fiorina running for a Senate seat in California and Whitman for the governorship of the same state. What happened? And more broadly, why do stars in the business world so often have difficulty getting elected?

First off, it’s unfortunate that both candidates had to run in California. One need only look to the size of government bureaucracy and the overall bankrupt (morally and economically) status of the state to realize what California voters overwhelmingly prefer. A state doesn’t get that way overnight. Its slow descent into hopelessness is the result of many successive voter choices that have ultimately created an entrenched, self-dependent political culture. The fact that Fiorina and Whitman figured that the majority of Californians would suddenly choose differently was a miscalculation. Government employees voting to cut state spending would mean voting for their boss to lay them off.

But beyond this prima facie miscalculation, business people generally have difficulty translating their professional experience to a political campaign. Rising to the top level in business requires diplomacy, compromise, and reason. These are not the same personalities that resonate in politics—particularly in the context of a campaign. Campaigns suffocate without adequate media coverage—witness Rudy Giuliani in the last presidential primaries. The lack of media coverage gave the impression that he had dropped out of the race long before he actually did. To capture any media attention, politicians have to find a way to break through all the noise generated by the Internet and the 24-hour multi-outlet machine. Sanity and balance won’t achieve that.

A classic example of this phenomenon is Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was seen as so boring and uncharismatic that he had to wait for the opposition to completely implode in scandal before voters would give him a chance. He has turned out to be the paragon of stability during the worldwide economic hurricane, and Canada has benefited from his boring stability.

The idea that a business figure is too connected or has too many friends in high places can also hinder a candidate. In spending millions of her own dollars in her attempt to win the governorship, Whitman probably thought it would give the impression that she’s self-sufficient, incorruptible, and isn’t running for office simply because it’s the best job or pay check she’d ever have (which, sadly, is the case for many politicians). But this positioning can unintentionally bring about the opposite effect: When voters hear that someone is breaking the bank to get elected, they can become suspicious and turned off by the idea that someone can think that they can buy their way into something, wondering why they would possibly want something so badly, or who it is that they might owe later.

There’s a sense of decorum and honor in the business world—especially at the level to which Fiorina and Whitman have risen—that doesn’t exist in politics. While competition exists, cooperation is more prevalent: deal-making, mutually beneficial propositions, and a generally positive and cooperative mentality. This spirit of cooperation can make negative campaigning or political attacks awkward, and their execution is often fumbled. It’s important for the political strategists who advise such candidates to recognize and accept the professional background and personality of their clients, and to work within an acceptable image and comfort zone. It’s one thing to have Sarah Palin featured in attack ads for a businesswoman-turned-politician, but another thing to impose such an image on someone it doesn’t fit.

Politics would have to be the most frustrating place for a person who excels in a capitalist meritocracy in which there’s at least some direct relationship between effort, talent, and compensation. Some find themselves overseeing the most dysfunctional bureaucratic systems ruled not by the most competent but rather by those with mere longevity as protected by civil service labor provisions.

Elected political leaders can’t hire and fire other politicians and civil service leaders to form the kind of team they require. Compared to top-level private sector positions, high-ranking political and government jobs aren’t as well-paid, and therefore don’t attract the top people, so the talent pool is limited. Smart business people who are dynamic and adaptable enough to make the move into politics often realize this and choose to contract out much of the heavy-lifting to the private sector, enabling them to deal, off the grid, with the best advisors.

Leadership doesn’t translate across the board between business and politics, and cases like those of Whitman and Fiorina prove the need for strategists and advisors who recognize this fact and who can serve any such candidates who might step forward in the future with the adaptation processes.

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