You can’t lead a country like a business

We are at the beginning of a great experiment in democracy. For the first time, the ‘Leader of The Free World’ is a man who has no experience of any form of government or mainstream politics.  Donald Trump has been elected, in part, precisely because he is not an experienced politician. Millions voted for him because they saw a successful businessmen who could cut deals, get things done, shake things up, make things happen.

Over a month into his presidency and it is clear to many what even the amateur followers of history and politics know, that you cannot lead a country like you lead a business.  It’s always baffled me why people insist on taking a useful analogy to help explain a complex situation and then turn it into a ‘fact’.  It’s OK to compare how a business can’t overspend with the need for governments to exercise fiscal responsibility. But it’s a huge, vaulting leap from that to talking about UK plc as if the government of a complex union of four countries is the equivalent of managing a portfolio of companies.  And fun though it is to point out that the market capitalization of Apple is greater than the GDP of a hundred different nations, it’s also fatuous. Apple has no responsibility to look after its sick customers, provide them with schools, protect them against military attacks, build their roads, their homes, supply their energy, their sanitation and their safety. Creating an app that helps you link your fridge to your phone, while playing all your favourite tunes and remembering to order your shopping, is wonderful. But it ain’t governing a country.

I wonder if people hear the word ‘governance’ being used in relation to business and conflate it with the similar word ‘government’.  Do they assume that if you are good at business which has governance, you’ll be good at the business of government?

Well, there are many differences.  Here are just three big reasons why you can’t lead a government as if it were a business.

1.Business has rules, government has laws.

One thing that seems to have confounded the Trump team during the Flynn debacle is that they were unaware that there are very strict laws about what people in or soon to be in government can or cannot do. These aren’t rules. They aren’t there to be broken by the bold game changers. They are laws. Deliberated over time, passed with careful thought and enshrined in statute. You don’t get admiring ‘wows’ at your innovation and fearlessness in breaking them. You get a congressional inquiry, the outrage of the nation and possibly a jail sentence.  These laws exist to protect the people of the country and to preserve the delicate balance of power that is at the heart of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights.  And Trump, as President, has sworn an oath to uphold them.  But observers of Trump’s first weeks in The White House commented that he and his team did not seem to be aware that such laws existed or that if they did, there was anything wrong in transgressing them.  They seemed to think they were just doing business like they have always done.  John Murphy in his excellent book, BrandFather, describes business as ‘a game where the rules are broad and loosely written and you can always create new ones for yourself.’  He is correct. That is one of the joys of business. Business sets rules which are often broken or revised. In government, there is no such latitude. The business of government is to set laws, to repeal laws if it so wishes, but above all to uphold the rule of those laws. To abide by the law.
The legal constraints that are put on the exercise of power are vital to the long term success of democracies. They may be infuriating and frustrating for an entrepreneur like Trump who is used to deciding one day to do something and the next day getting it done. But, as they say, that’s the law!

2.Every situation is multi-dimensional, multi-lateral

“If you are a businessman who aspires to run a country, please practise some humility.”

Trump supporters claim he is a great deal maker and he will therefore make great deals for the country. But business deals are not international treaties. There is a world of difference. In business, the parties involved in any ‘deal’, any transaction are usually limited, single-minded in focus, and if there are more than one, there is usually some linearity to the relationship. You might have a customer to woo, a supply chain to manage, a workforce to motivate, a board to impress. It’s difficult but it’s contained within a relatively narrow focus. There might be times where you are involved in joint ventures, of course, or seeking access through governments to the rights to operate in new markets. But even then there is usually a fairly obvious outcome on which people are focused.

‘Doing a deal’ between countries, however, is hugely complex. You not only have to think about the country or countries you are dealing with. You also have to think about the ‘ripple effects’ to countries that are not directly involved in that deal or treaty or agreement. The fragile threads of diplomacy that somehow keep the world together can be broken or unravel. The known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, to which Donald Rumsfeld referred, hang over every significant action. The same is true about passing laws in your own country, as Trump’s almost naïve response at the end of his meeting with Healthcare chiefs and Congressional leaders to discuss repealing Obamacare, revealed: “who’d have thought healthcare would be so complex?”

3.The consequences of your decisions are enormous

Business people who make big deals like to make a big deal about them. They may have raised £bns of cash, may have secured the biggest $bn merger in corporate history, hit record profits, share prices, sales, market share. All of these are huge, big, great, awesome.  When it goes wrong, bad things can happen as well. People lose jobs, companies collapse and economies can be hit. But the ramifications are nevertheless limited. The decisions that political leaders make, on the other hand, have enormous ramifications: countries go to war, economies can collapse, hospitals, schools, an entire nation’s infrastructure can be put under insufferable strain, nationwide strikes, international refugee crises and at the far end of extreme consequence nuclear holocaust ‘like no other’.

If you are a businessman who aspires to run a country, please practise some humility. Learn to understand how government works. Learn about the constitution in your country, the various and interwoven laws, links, traditions hopes and fears that are involved. Learn what it means to lead for everyone, not just for your own business.

It was a very different Trump who addressed his first Joint Congress session from the one that addressed the nation at his Inauguration. Gone was the ‘let’s get it done’, ‘in your face’ tone of the brash businessman. In its place was a tone more measured, more conciliatory, more statesmanlike.  Perhaps his first month in political office has begun to teach him that you can’t run a country like a business. And maybe we can learn something about leading a business from watching a businessman learning to lead a country.

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