The Perils of President CEO: 7 Reasons Why Business Icons Don’t Make Great Presidents


Let us first start with this declaration: this is not a diatribe against Donald Trump. Rather, it is a tsk, tsk, tsk to the American people for not being careful about what they wish for. For years, if not decades, we have heard how much better off the country would be if the people would only elect an accomplished CEO as president.

This is what we need, so I was told. A CEO would know how to fix things, get things done, and not deal with the ridiculousness, so I heard. I always felt this inflated optimism was dangerously misplaced, but not because of any specific CEO that might become president. Rather, because I was wary that the people were misreading the fundamental characteristics of most super-alpha CEOs, which are actually mismatched with the necessary character qualities of a great president. Since the first year of the current President CEO seems to be showing this wariness to be well-founded, I thought it might be worthwhile to make explicit just what this mismatch is and why. I therefore offer seven simple axioms that explain why any business-tycoon-turned-president in the 21st century might be fated to be a completely ineffective and irrelevant chief executive. In this case, it isn’t so much about the person as it is about the culture:

1.“Yes” people problems

Despite what many CEOs will tell you on the lucrative rubber-chicken public speaking/inspiring leadership book tour circuit, the reality is CEOs have a notorious reputation for being extremely thin-skinned. This reputation manifests itself in two primary ways: in their heart of hearts, CEOs don’t truly value being directly challenged or questioned and therefore surround themselves more with people who will affirm their opinions rather than confront them. In the corridors of executive political power these two things are disastrous. Modern American politics has evolved to the point where the Presidency has almost no veneration whatsoever. As a result, media and social media can be intensely vicious in their criticisms. Trying to counter that by surrounding yourself with “yes” people only exacerbates problems, rather than resolving them.

2.Style over substance

The actual details of being President of the United States tends to be rather tedious, even boring, requiring tons of study time, briefing time, meeting time, etc, etc, etc. This is quite the opposite of the corporate atmosphere preferred by CEOs, who like being able to sketch out the rough details of the big picture and then let the senior executive staff flesh out the explicit parameters of making that picture a reality. Presidents are often anally fastidious and meticulous, wanting to get down in the weeds of policy far beyond a normal human capacity. CEOs decidedly do not seek that unique bureaucratic hell that is quite innate to Washington DC.

3.Tighter tip of the pyramid

While most presidents have not copied the amazing ‘Team of Rivals’ model utilized by Lincoln (where he literally laced his Cabinet with opponents and critics simply because he believed in their talent and their dedication to the country, if not necessarily to him personally), they nevertheless have always tried to build a Cabinet full of talented people whose talent would be largely unquestioned. In many cases, given a two-term President, the people come to expect his successor to emerge from that team, so highly vetted and accomplished they should be. Thus, the top of a presidential pyramid has a much broader top, more convex than pointed, allowing other talented people to be very near the summit of the structure. The top of the CEO pyramid is the tip of the spear. While having a talented executive team is important, it is not nearly as close to the very top as in the White House, where the President is going to be quasi-grooming his/her successor if/when he leaves the position. A CEO is much more of a lone wolf than a president could ever hope to be.

4.Dominance over compromise

This is one of the biggest differences. While some politicians might argue today that compromise is weakness, the reality of presidential politics inevitably involves an ability to not just accept compromise, but be the innovator that initiates it. The CEO environment often takes compromise only as a last-ditch, only-way-to-salvage-the-deal measure, and even then, takes it reluctantly. More preferable to compromise as strategy is old-school dominance: a take-no-prisoners, hear-the-lamentations-of-the-woman-and-children approach that will place the CEO and the company at the top of the mountain with no questioned rivals in view. Do not mistake this as arguing a President cannot be strong: it is just that in politics strength is often measured by how well you can accomplish your goals while still building bridges, not by how much devastation you leave behind in your wake. CEOs conquer. Presidents construct.

5.Selfish over selfless

This is a simple but profound differentiation between the bottom lines of politics and business. No matter what anyone tries to argue in terms of corporate philanthropy, the job of a CEO is to ensure profit, raise stock value, and depress the competition. It is an inherently selfish endeavor justified by the perceived glory of the end results. The job of President is not only selfless, more often than not in the modern world, it can seem thankless. The best presidents are ones not motivated by personal desire or striving for individualistic gain. As president, you are meant to be the literal embodiment of the hopes and dreams of all of America’s diverse population. Selfish motives, therefore, spell doom.

6.“Schmoozing” is not diplomacy:

CEOs are famous for working a room. The mistaken assumption is that what it takes to work a boardroom or business environment is perfectly synonymous with the skills required to perform diplomacy. These skills are not the same at all. In fact, stories are legion of just how poorly ‘insincere’ communicators fare in diplomatic corridors. Photo ops are nice and make for great media. But they rarely turn into actual policy achievement, peace declarations, or conflict resolutions, which are the lifeblood and true purpose of diplomacy. Thus, experience in CEO ‘glad-handing’ is not the ideal training ground to become the Commander-in-Chief and handle critical life-and-death situations that often face that office.

7.The country is NOT actually a corporation

This might be the hardest axiom for people to accept. Since politicians in general are held in such low regard today and since politics are considered by many to be a major part of the country’s problems rather than its solution, I can understand why so many want the ‘outsider-ness’ of a non-politician business icon to lead the country. So yes, while it’s always about the economy and jobs often matter more than anything else (aside from security), the reality is the running of a country is so much more than the decision-making calculus of a corporation. Side issues and multiple layers of complexity force a president to have to think far beyond just single-item issues or quick and convenient solutions. The interdependent interconnectivity of a country, across economics, defense, social welfare, health, and the environment (just to name five out of hundreds), means that the president cannot just look to address problems from a bottom-line-what-is-the best-profit-margin result. Largely because that result will only be approved by a small segment of society and rejected by huge swaths of the other segments. So, while admittedly trite and catchy, treating the country like a corporation from the highest office in the land is actually the worst strategy to employ if interested in having a healthy, happy, and safe nation.

So, there you have it. Seven reasons why a President CEO is perhaps destined to create an ineffective and uninspiring presidency. Keep in mind these seven reasons apply to the sub-type ‘CEO.’ It does not take into consideration a specific CEO who may happen to be president at the moment. But if you take these general explanations and apply them to a specific case study, it may just help you understand why these first nine months of 2017 have been so uneven, so inconsistent, and so haphazard. In some ways, it was inevitable and only the American people have themselves to blame.

Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website:


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