The View

Thinking Donald Trump - politicians better at running governments

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2015, 11:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

The extraordinary emergence of Donald Trump as leader in the race to become the Republican nominee for the US presidential election, despite his equally extraordinary behaviour, once again brings into focus the question of whether business leaders are best suited to be political leaders.

Trump flaunts his business experience and no nonsense approach to leadership as his trump card (some apologies for the pun) in this race. In many ways this captures the public imagination because people yearn for a decisive, straightforward leader and believe that if these qualities work for companies they must axiomatically work in government.

In Trumps’ case he combines his business achievements with a high profile reality television show career, which seems to be based on his decisiveness in firing people.

The Republican faithful are also greatly fired up by his ruthless demonization of Mexican immigrants and seem willing to tolerate not only his astonishing attacks on other Republicans but may even overlook his willingness to challenge the Republican nominee if he is not selected as the candidate. Although this is playing well in some Republican circles, it appears not to be playing that well with the wider electorate.

Sometimes, listening to Trump resembles being stuck next to a bar room bore keen to get the wrongs of the world off his chest. The business world is quite heavily populated by people of this kind and if you are unfortunate to be corralled into one of those endless business conferences it will not be hard to find a Trump-like figure holding court.

However the ability to pontificate is an insufficient qualification for political leadership and begs the question of whether the experience and qualities cultivated in business are necessarily suitable for political leadership. The simple answer is that they are not and here’s why.

First of all and although this may not prove to be a popular view over on the business pages, it is a fact that leading a business is generally far less complex than leading a government.

By and large business success has a clearly identifiable bottom line, which is the amount of profit earned. These days many businessmen like to air their views on things such as environmental awareness or possibly ‘developing human potential’ but they only get any kind of attention as long as they are making money. The global views of loss making business leaders are given very little airspace.

Success in leading a government involves satisfying a very diverse constituency and often means alienating one part of the community to please another. Moreover there are few single measures of success and even what look like being achievements can be viewed as failures. A government leader rarely has the luxury of pointing to a simple indicator of success in the way that business leaders can point to the bottom line.

Secondly, the skills required to be a successful business leader are not interchangeable with those of a political leader because successful politicians have to possess an extraordinary combination of talents, including being shrewd thinkers, formidably articulate exponents and wheeler dealers who are prepared to get their hands dirty doing deals to put their policies into practice.

They also need that very special knack of being able to inspire confidence in both those who work closely with them but also the wider public and they need to have an almost instinctive sense of timing. It is rare to see a single person possessing all these attributes and this is why most politicians end up as failures.

Yet the requirements for political success contain elements of what it takes to be a successful business leader. However business leaders, frankly, need not bother with the whole shebang. Moreover they can be ‘decisive’ in the way that Trump claims to be ‘decisive’ because they suffer less restraints and face far lower levels of accountability.

Politics is littered with examples of businessmen who got into the politics and failed miserably; former businessmen Herbert Hoover and Warren G Harding managed to secure the US presidency but ran incredibly lacklustre administrations. Successful entrepreneurs, such as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes aimed for the White House but got nowhere close.

Meanwhile, here in Hong Kong the fine people in Beijing thought Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping tycoon, would admirably set the tone for politics by making him Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive. But he ran an extraordinarily shambolic administration and his stature has only risen recently because his successors have proved to be far more unpopular. This is exemplified by the current Chief Executive who was also a businessmen but it would take a brave person to tout his administration as an exemplar of government leadership 101.

The plain facts are boring: businessmen are good at running businesses and politicians are better at running governments.


Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster