Does success in business equal success in politics?

January 24, 2012

It's not uncommon for political candidates these days to tout their background in business as evidence of their skills to be an effective public servant.  After all, managing budgets and running with complex organizations is a key part of modern governance. 

But in a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times asked one of the central questions at the heart of the present Republican primary campaign. To wit: Does success in business necessarily translate into success in politics, specifically the Presidency? Or, another way of putting it: Is success at making corporate profits the same as crafting good economic policy? Is running America like running a corporation?

In short, Brooks argues that there is no direct correlation between business success and political success. He has long maintained that successful political leadership has similar but deeper roots than that which is required for success in business.

Although success in business and politics requires talent and a large storehouse of technical and intellectual tools, politics is about the business and management of people, not just the business of assets and profit margins. Politics is about stewardship, being of help to others and not necessarily always competing with others. Politics should be about public duty and not just private ambition. Politics is always about others and not just self.

Brooks suggests that historically successful Presidents have shared at least five similar characteristics and traits.

1. “Successful Presidents tend to me emotionally secure,” he writes. That is, they have a strong sense of self. They are honest with themselves. They know who they are. They know what they stand for. They possess a strong moral compass and can withstand “the criticism of the crowd.”

2. “They are infused with a sense of obligation and responsibility to perform public service.”

3. “Great Presidents tend to have superb political judgment. In his essay on the subject, Isaiah Berlin defines political judgment as a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent perpetually overlapping data.”

4. Great political leaders have often experienced crushing personal setbacks that have made them more sensitive to the needs and wants of others. For example, Lincoln’s depression or FDR’s polio made them sympathetic to the pain and frailty of others. And it also made them more aggressive in the face of hardship and suffering.

5. Finally, successful political leaders “tend to have an instrumental mentality. They do not feel the office is about them.” They are just a temporary instrument in service of a larger cause.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but nevertheless, these five factors are worthy of serious consideration and reflection in this election year - and every other.

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