Herman Cain and the False Premise of a CEO Presidency

October 25th, 2011



This piece was originally published in The Washington Post.

Ross Perot. Steve Forbes. Herman Cain.

All three are corporate CEOs who ran for president. They mounted serious campaigns for the highest office in the land with just one prior political race (Cain’s failed 2004 Senate bid) among them.

The premise of each of their campaigns—and of all the other fantasy candidacies ranging from Donald Trump to Lee Iacocca—has been that politicians broke politics, and only a corporate leader has the management skills, financial acumen and decisiveness to right the ship of state.

Their case boils down to a basic leadership proposition that a CEO presidency would be the best model for breaking through beltway gridlock and securing America’s economic future.

But is that true?

The entire leadership model of a successful CEO is vastly different from that of a successful president. As political commentator Bill Schneider has pointed out, corporations are designed to be more like benevolent dictatorships; in contrast, the presidency is the leadership of a large and unruly democracy.

This dictatorship vs. democracy distinction matters when it comes to three crucial aspects of leadership.

The first one is consensus. Like presidents, CEOs work tirelessly to build consensus—but inside their companies. This is a game changer. They hire and fire, promote and demote, give or withhold bonuses. They have far greater flexibility in how to structure work and to re-organize as needed. And most crucially, the interests of their employees directly align with the success of the company.

As president, Barack Obama must find consensus not with his employees but with his fiercest political opponents in Congress. And even his allies don’t work for him. When Democrats controlled both chambers, he had to mollify his own party. And because of the Senate’s modern use of the filibuster, the president usually needs a number of votes from Senate Republicans—the very group that hopes to turn the president out of the White House. In the House he generally needs to get the majority of an even more hostile group of Republicans, and this just to bring a bill to the floor. This makes consensus exceedingly elusive. A president faces the same dilemma in dealings outside the country, finding ways to work effectively with America’s “frienemies” like Pakistan, who remain both allies and potential adversaries.

Communication is the second key leadership area in which CEO experience and presidential experience diverge. CEOs and presidents engage very differently  with their principal audience: consumers and voters. As CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Cain communicated directly with his potential customers, with very little interference. Virtually the only product information his consumers received came directly from his company in the form of advertisements (remember “The pizza you can’t refuse?”). Of course industry competitors sometimes contradict your claims, but that’s minor static compared to the heat of a political battle. And while common in Washington, the instances are truly rare when a CEO loses complete control of his company’s message – usually because something has gone terribly wrong, such as with the Tylenol scare or the Gulf oil spill.

Not so in the White House. A president must regularly communicate through the mess of democracy’s many, and often contradictory and imperfect, filters. His voice and message are heard through the traditional media, blogs, his political party, the opposing party and outside organizations (which often spend hundreds of millions of dollars with the singular objective of discrediting both the message and the messenger). Except when he is delivering the infrequent televised address to the nation, the president has almost no direct channel of communications to the American electorate.

Finally: control. While serving as the benevolent dictator CEO, Cain likely had very few checks on his power inside his own organization. While the board could remove him, there were few other explicit limits to his authority and ability to direct his company. He could hire and fire at will, make investment and growth decisions, and chart the organization’s course.

The presidency, for all of its trappings and genuine levers of power and influence, is a far more constrained position. President Truman predicted President-elect Eisenhower’s inevitable frustration when he swapped his Army stars for the Oval Office: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.

How is a president’s power checked? By Congress, which must act on legislation, judicial nominations and hundreds of appointments to the president’s own team; by independent agencies, which can regulate without his approval; by the GAO and other watchdog agencies, which provide oversight of his administration’s decisions; by agency inspectors general, which operate outside his influence; by the vast federal bureaucracy itself, with its Dickensian complexity and tenured civil servants; and ultimately by the entire judicial branch, which by its very design can nullify his decisions.

Some CEOs have taken a look at the job and decided it wasn’t for them. Donald Trump found that being the dictator, whose main job was to publicly fire his so-called apprentices, better suited his flamboyant style and seemed a more fun, if not more important, task than running for president. That leaves Herman Cain who, if he somehow manages to get elected, would find out that being president just isn’t remotely the same as being The Godfather.