Framing the U.S. Debate

This could be the year that the issue of U.S. competitiveness finally arrives as a mainstay of conversations across the [...]

January 25 2006 by William J. Holstein


This could be the year that the issue of U.S. competitiveness finally arrives as a mainstay of conversations across the land. So we’re pleased that this issue of Chief Executive will help frame the debate.

Our cover story, written by Herbert Shuldiner, one of the deans of the automotive press corps, suggests that General Motors and Ford will have to undertake even more sweeping changes than announced so far As the two automakers close more factories and take other painful steps, pressure will increase on policymakers in Washington to answer a basic question, “Does it matter that a U.S.-owned auto industry survive?” Readers of this page know that my own answer is “yes”. And GM’s Rick Wagoner obviously has strong feelings on the subject.

The coverage of our 7th Annual CEO Leadership Summit in Palm Beach, Fla., also demonstrates the multifaceted nature of the competitiveness debate. In some respects, American CEOs have advantages that companies in emerging markets haven’t yet acquired-you know how to innovate over a sustained period of time, you know how to orchestrate global enterprises, you can manage incredibly complex supply chains, and you have unparalleled access to capital. Your goal should be to maintain leadership in each of those realms, which is exactly what our CEO attendees discussed.

At the same time, however, there are some problems that need fixing-health care and public education, among them. Our attendees had some insights about what CEOs can do within their own companies to respond.

But I think it is time for CEOs to turn up the heat on government and the educational sector to start fixing more of the problems that hamper U.S. competitiveness. No matter how forceful and far-sighted a CEO may be, he or she cannot fix all that ails the U.S. competitive model in the absence of more enlightened policies from government. I acknowledge that there is an overall climate of negativity toward CEOs, but the corruption scandal breaking in Washington may mean that CEOs will be able to exercise more influence. As the depth of U.S. competitive challenges becomes clearer, I predict the pendulum will keep moving in the right direction-so that CEOs increasingly will be seen as leaders, not scoundrels.