The Making of a U.S. CEO
What can business executives learn from political candidates?
October 29 2007 by Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Hillary Clinton: The country is dramatically divided over Hillary’s candidacy: She inspires the most passionate “positives” and elicits the most powerful “negatives.” She rides on the legacy of her husband, Bill Clinton, the most natural politician in recent memory, and she capitalizes on her eight years of on-the-job experience in the White House. She continues to hold a comfortable lead in Democratic Party polls-the nomination seems hers to lose-and so she strives to avoid missteps as she adjusts her image. Her critics, of whom there are legion, accuse her of being overly ambitious and opportunistic, shifting positions for transient expediency. Having voted for the Iraq War, she can’t quite figure out how to condemn President Bush and yet seem strong on defense. When she is criticized for not being warm and caring, she follows a nurse around for a day. Credit Hillary Clinton, however, for nuance in her
Barack Obama: Perhaps this generation’s most electrifying new candidate, Obama combines sudden celebrity with the appeal of being a unifier and role model for America-an African-American from Hawaii (his father is a black Kenyan and his mother a white American), a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, a lawyer and a senator with superb oratorical skills. When criticized for his lack of experience, particularly in foreign policy, he fires back by suggesting that perhaps
John Edwards: Said to possess the best smile and the best hair of all the candidates-assets not insubstantial- Edwards carries the baggage of having been John Kerry’s running mate in their 2004 election loss. A former trial lawyer specializing in personal injury and corporate negligence, he has taken a populist position verging on class warfare as he tours poverty areas and blasts big business. The further his polls dip, the more he attacks “powerful interests.” In a campaign speech, Edwards claimed, “The entire system is rigged, and it’s rigged against you. …From insurance companies to drug companies to oil companies, those people run this country now. …you’ve got to take them on and beat them. I don’t think you can sit at a table and negotiate with them. The idea that they are going to voluntarily give away their power… that will never happen.”
Edwards has been criticized for the huge fees he earned as a successful trial lawyer-and for his expensive haircuts. The diagnosis of incurable cancer his wife, Elizabeth, received was a political minefield: Playing it down might appear callous, while stressing it might feel unseemly, a garish attempt to elicit sympathy. To the Edwards’ credit, they played it straight and got it right.
Al Gore: Nobody really thinks that the man who won the popular vote in the 2000 elections has given up his desire to be president, even though this is precisely what he keeps saying. Gore is smart enough to know that he seems yesterday’s candidate and that if he were to run in the Democratic primaries he would lose. His only hope is if Hillary were to stumble and the Democratic convention were to deadlock, he could become a compromise candidate. (“How do you know when Gore is running?” goes the inside half-joke. “When he starts losing weight.”) Give Gore credit for his passionate campaign against global warming, exemplified by his hit film, An Inconvenient Truth.
Rudy Giuliani: It may seem astonishing that the leading Republican candidate supports gay rights, abortion rights and gun control, not to mention being married three times and having had a notoriously public affair. Giuliani is running on one issue: leadership, tough leadership. Giuliani led
John McCain: Considered for years one of the most independent-minded politicians in America (a “maverick”), and surely a genuine war hero (having spent over five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp), McCain transformed his independence into a personal qualification for which Americans seemed to yearn in an era of increasingly partisan politics. Yet McCain has seen his leading position falter, largely the result of substandard fundraising and a spate of internal management conflicts. McCain’s apparent rightward shift, needed, he felt, to attain the Republican nomination, may have eroded his independent image.
Mitt Romney: Romney is arguably the most “perfect” Republican candidate-successful business executive,
Fred Thompson: An actor and former senator, Thompson held back from announcing his candidacy as long as possible. His strategy was simple. He needed to know where the other candidates stood, and when McCain faltered and Giuliani seem ed vulnerable on social policy, Thompson an nounced and now seeks to take the conservative high ground. On abortion, Thompson was controversially unequivocal: “I think Roe v. Wade was a bad decision. I think it was bad law and bad medicine,” he said on CNN-a position that will surely help with the nomination but, if he should win the nomination, would just as surely hurt with the election. Folksy and charming, Thompson has a reputation for not working particularly hard. (Ronald Reagan, that other actor who had a remarkably successful presidency, faced similar accusations.)
Field of Candidates III: The Potential Independent Finally, one cannot ignore a potential independent candidate, who may flout the conventional wisdom that third-party candidates can only attract limited voters, like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, or would-be spoilers, like Ralph Nader in 2004.
Michael Bloomberg: Not considered particularly charismatic, lovable or good-looking, the
Five Leadership Principles: What to Do Stress Strengths More than Correct Weaknesses: Hillary’s legacy. Giuliani’s leadership. Obama’s freshness. Bloomberg’s competence. Romney’s family values, all-around experience. Edwards’ middle/lower class appeals. McCain’s independence. Thompson’s image.
Turn Weakness into Strength: Obama on his lack of experience. Edwards on his wife’s cancer. The more conservatives attack Hillary, the more her liberal base supports her.
Differentiate Yourself: McCain’s independence. Edwards’ populism. Thompson on abortion. Hillary as the first female candidate with a serious shot at the presidency. Giuliani on 9/11. Obama as a Harvard-educated, African-American senator.
Tell the Hard Truth: Giuliani on his non-conservative social positions. Gore on global warming. Hillary on lobbyists. Bloomberg on himself. Timing, Timing, Timing: Gore, Thompson, perhaps Bloomberg.
Two Anti-Leadership Principles: What to Avoid Inconsistency: Hillary on
Expediency: Hillary’s image (whether exaggerated or justified). McCain’s rightward shift.
Application for Business Executives It may not be instantly obvious what the private selection of a business chief executive by a board of directors has in common with the public election of a political chief executive by a national vote. The commonality is leadership, the overarching, predominating trait that prevails in both cases.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international investment banker and corporate strategist, is senior adviser at Citigroup. He is co-editor-in-chief of China’s Banking and Financial Markets: The Internal Report of the Chinese Government and author of the number one best-selling book in