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Pundit’s Mailbag — Truman, Eisenhower And Leadership: The Distinction Between Business And Politics

Our piece, Business Strategies Don’t Often Translate In Politics, which dealt with an article we wrote for The Weekly Standard titled, Ron Paul — and the ‘Pink Slip’, brought this note:

Business and politics are not the same. It is a mistake to assume that a successful business executive and/or entrepreneur would make a good political leader.  While governments could learn important lessons from business, especially in the fields of efficiency, innovation and fiscal restraint, the mission of business and government remain vastly different.

The mission of business is profit and increasing the value of the enterprise.  The mission of government is to serve and protect the people whom they lead, which includes reasonable oversight and regulation of commerce both domestic and international as well as maintaining a standing army and protecting the constitution.  Government’s aim is to increase the value of life and opportunity for all its citizens.

That is often in opposition to the goals of business.

— Richard Kaiser
The Richard Kaiser Co. Inc.
Salinas, California

Richard has been kind enough to contribute many letters to the Pundit including these:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Population Inured By Recalls

Pundit’s Mailbag — Should PMA And United Merge?

Pundit Mailbag: Consumer-Focused

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Role Of Produce Traders

We appreciate Richard’s insight today. It is indeed unclear that being a good business leader assures that one would be a good political leader, though we suspect that would apply to almost any line of work.

Richard Neustadt, a renowned political scientist who, among other things, was a founding faculty member at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote a famous book titled, Presidential Power. In the introduction, he told a story of President Truman reflecting on the possibility that the Supreme Allied commander in World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would become President:

In the early summer of 1952, before the heat of the campaign, President [Harry] Truman used to contemplate the problems of the general-become-President should [Dwight David] Eisenhower win the forthcoming election. ‘He’ll sit here,’ Truman would remark (tapping his desk for emphasis), ‘and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.’ 

And indeed, when elected, he did find it frustrating:

Eisenhower evidently found it so. ‘In the face of the continuing dissidence and disunity, the President sometimes simply exploded with exasperation,’ wrote Robert Donovan in comment on the early months of Eisenhower’s first term. ‘What was the use, he demanded to know, of his trying to lead the Republican Party ….. And this reaction was not limited to early months alone, or to his party only.

‘The President still feels,’ an Eisenhower aide remarked to me in 1958, ‘that when he’s decided something, that ought to be the end of it … and when it bounces back undone or done wrong, he tends to react with shocked surprise.’

Truman knew whereof he spoke. With ‘resignation’ in the place of ‘shocked surprise,’ the aide’s description would have fitted Truman. The former senator may have been less shocked than the former general, but he was no less subjected to that painful and repetitive experience: ‘Do this, do that, and nothing will happen.’

Long before he came to talk of Eisenhower he had put his own experience in other words: ‘I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them…. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.’

In fact, Neustadt came down to saying that the power of the Presidency was weak; that it was mostly the power to persuade:

In these words of a President, spoken on the job, one finds the essence of the problem now before us: ‘powers’ are no guarantee of power; clerkship is no guarantee of leadership. The President of the United States has an extraordinary range of formal powers, of authority in statute law and in the Constitution.

Here is testimony that despite his ‘powers’ he does not obtain results by giving orders — or not, at any rate, merely by giving orders. He also has extraordinary status, ex officio, according to the customs of our government and politics. Here is testimony that despite his status he does not get action without argument. Presidential power is the power to persuade….

So generals, accustomed to people saying “Yes, Sir” and mindful of court martial for insubordination, are going to experience frustration when things don’t happen with the same abandon they do when a general gives orders.

Of course CEOs learn quickly that giving orders may be a way to achieve certain things, but not to achieve everything.  And truth be told, generals know that as well.

Orders work best if subordinates have given their superior not merely their obedience but their hearts, fighting with passion, in the army, and on the battlefields of business.

In government, progress is difficult. Partly this is because one deals with a web of institutions that are not subordinates. Neutadt explained:

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is supposed to have created a government of ‘separated powers.’ It did nothing of the sort. Rather, it created a government of separated institutions sharing powers. ‘I am part of the legislative process,’ Eisenhower often said in 1959 as a reminder of his veto. Congress, the dispenser of authority and funds, is no less part of the administrative process.

Federalism adds another set of separated institutions. The Bill of Rights adds others. Many public purposes can only be achieved by voluntary acts of private institutions; the press, for one, in Douglass Cater’s phrase, is a ‘fourth branch of government.’ And with the coming of alliances abroad, the separate institutions of a London, or a Bonn, share in the making of American public policy.”

So to a general, the frustrations — and Eisenhower knew them well — of negotiating with an ally, as he did with General DeGaulle or Lord Mountbattan and even Stalin, is more akin to governing than giving orders to soldiers.  And, it is not really a secret that though John Pershing, Douglas McArthur and George Marshall may have been soldiers, they were scarcely meekly compliant ones.

In business, telling one’s employees what to do is one thing, but vendors, customers, regulators, investors, lenders, etc., are not likely to be so supine.

Truth is that leadership is complex. Even if you think that business experience is relevant and important in a President, the kind of business experience that Mitt Romney, for example, had — primarily as an investor in businesses — is quite different from someone who sweated out a payroll.

In fact, the answer may be that stereotypes of leadership — generals and businesspeople, etc. — don’t really deal with the subtleties that make some great leaders and some not. George F. Will has a column out titled, The Unknown Greatness of Ike, that focuses on a controversial plan to build a new memorial. The focus of the memorial, oddly, is Eisenhower as a boy. The approach was selected as a way of diminishing Eisenhower’s importance:

WashingtonPost cultural critic Philip Kennicott says the statue suggests Eisenhower “both innocent of and yet pregnant with whatever failings history ultimately attributes to his career.”

Failings? A memorial is not an exhaustive assessment; it is a celebration of a preponderance of greatness.

Kennicott praises Gehry’s project because it allows visitors “space to form their own assessment of Eisenhower’s legacy.” But memorials aren’t seminars; they’re reminders that a person esteemed by the nation lived and is worth learning more about.

Kennicott says Gehry’s project acknowledges that “few great men are absolutely great, without flaws and failings.” Good grief. If Ike, with all his defects, wasn’t great, cancel the memorial.

Kennicott celebrates the “relatively small representation of Eisenhower” because “there were other Eisenhowers right behind him, other men who could have done what he did, who would have risen to the occasion if they had been tapped.” How sweetly democratic. Greatness can be tapped hither and yon. But if greatness is so abundant and assured, it is hardly greatness, so cancel all memorials.

Whatever makes a great President — of a country, or a company — it is not something easily derived from their resumes.

Many thanks to Richard Kaiser for weighing in on this important topic.

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