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Is business leadership different from political leadership?

Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher

Faculty Blog

With the controversial election of real estate mogul Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, there is considerable concern about his style of leadership. A prevalent criticism is that he is not very ‘presidential’ in his conduct, seemingly involving himself in public debates that many deem to be below the level of conduct expected of a president, making unfounded claims, attacking and insulting those in disagreement, and more. But, management approach aside, is it likely that Trump will be successful in his role as the world’s most powerful leader?

It is of interest that, with the notable exception of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, few recent leaders of major developed countries have emerged from the business sector. Rather, they made their way up through the world of politics. And we may well ask why. Wouldn’t it make sense that someone who successfully ran a Fortune 500 company could also do well as a political leader? Alternatively, why not ask someone who has been successful as prime minister, president or governor to take the helm of one of these firms?

David Davenport, writing in Forbes, suggests that such a transition would be highly unlikely to be successful because leadership happens within a context. There are examples even within the business world: although John Sculley was successful at Pepsi, he was not particularly successful when he moved to Apple. And the gap between business and politics is wider still.

Davenport also suggests that business leaders can focus on a single goal: profitability. Political leaders, however, operate in a much more subtle environment with multiple constituencies to please, history and tradition to be aware of and only a limited amount of the well-defined chain of command and control enjoyed by businessmen. Businessmen are pragmatists, while politicians need to be philosophers, pursuing principles in a world with infinite shades of grey.

History will judge Trump’s success. In the meantime, the scenario that unfolds in Washington over the next four years will, in my opinion, be unprecedented. It is the first time that a US president has been elected on an emotion rather than on a platform.