Donald Trump proved something important by winning the presidential election last year: An outsider really can win the highest office in the land, relying on experience gained in the business sector rather than a lifetime in politics.
But Trump is not governing like a CEO. He’s not making pragmatic decisions based on getting the best return on scarce resources. The continual controversy he courts interferes directly with his bottom line, which is the ability to get legislation passed and new policies put into place. If anything, his political operation is like a wackadoodle startup burning its funding on distractions while trying to figure out what its core competency is.
Understanding the kind of company Trump ran might explain why. He inherited his father’s business and built it into the Trump Organization, a notable real-estate developer but one that was always private and closely held by the family. There were no shareholders. No public filings. No public scrutiny by Wall Street analysts. Trump made decisions with a small coterie of family members and close advisers. What happened in Trumpland stayed in Trumpland. There were no leaks or embarrassing revelations—except when various casinos had to declare bankruptcy—because Trump could count on loyalty from a tiny group of people he had known for years.
The federal government is nothing like a privately owned company. If anything, it’s the opposite—messy, inefficient, overstaffed and stuffed to the gills with people who will bark to the press if things don’t go their way. Practicing oversight, like a board of directors, is the maddening institution known as the US Congress. The press, protected by the Constitution, stands as a ready partner to every leaker who wants to gum things up.
Trump seems astonished by this. He complains constantly of leakers, as if he’s the first president to deal with such an affront. He whispers, buddy-buddy, to the FBI director about dropping a high-stakes investigation into a top national-security official, as if asking a favor of his private banker—then seems aghast when word gets out. He threatens to disrupt intelligence-gathering operations in some faraway hellhole, then acts indignant when the people who do such work for a living go bananas. This is a business leader who has never had to face an activist investor who demands a higher share price or buy-side analysts who think your strategy is failing.
There are other types of business leaders much better prepared for the hothouse inside the Beltway. The CEOs of public companies can be imperious, but they generally don’t survive if they’re thin-skinned and blame every problem they create on somebody else. In fact, those types of people rarely make it past VP. Good CEOs know they get credit or blame for what happens on their watch, and their job is to deal with circumstances as they find them, not as they wish things would be. Leaks? Surely no company leaks as much as Congress does, but in business, this kind of thing is just another exogenous factor you have to deal with, along with bad weather if you’re a retailer, Mideast wars if you’re an energy company or deadly competition from Silicon Valley if you’re an aging dinosaur.
Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil who’s now Secretary of State, seems to be learning quickly on the job, and performing competently so far. Former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, head of Trump’s National Economic Council, seems to be rolling with the punches and mustering an economic agenda for Trump, even as crisis swirls. Both men have learned to thrive amid the glare of critics. Trump hasn’t, and may never.
There’s speculation that other business leaders may follow Trump’s lead in 2020, and run for the White House, including Disney CEO Bob Iger and Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. Both earned their spurs in public companies that are also consumer brands, answerable to unpredictable trends, the ever-present threat of boycotts and the merciless trolls on social media. It would be interesting to see how a public-company CEO fares in the White House. Compared with one not accustomed to such accountability.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.