Donald Trump and the Lessons of Wharton

Friends and associates ask me about Donald Trump as if I possess special insight. Their questions apparently come from the traits we share. We both have degrees from Wharton, are successful in business and active in politics. My colleagues also like to remind me that we share the same initials, DJT.

But that's where our similarities end. I am a Democrat, an enthusiastic supporter of progressive policies, and a longtime advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union. Trump is a Republican and has run his campaign for President by attacking our most fundamental civil liberties. I believe in hope, while he believes in fear. I run my business based on the people who work for me, the customers who depend on me, and the communities who rely on me. I've always held the firm belief that people come first in business and profits follow. Donald Trump runs his business the other way around.

As much as the possibility of a Trump presidency concerns me, I also fear that Trump's campaign might feed an impression that those with business school training and business experience are incapable of elevated political debate and successful governing.

That would be unfortunate. Business training and experience should be good preparation for a candidate and an elected official. Business school exposes students to best practices in budgeting, marketing, and entrepreneurship, which are important for political campaigning and governing. Working with rigorous analytical tools trains us to integrate different types of information and to make multiple complex decisions, an essential part of political leadership. In retail, we have a laser-like focus on the consumer, an orientation particularly useful for governing in a democracy.

Donald Trump's campaign for President is completely antithetical to what we learned at Wharton and what our successful alumni practice in business.

The incivility of Trump's campaign exacerbates some of the worst stereotypes of business education and practice. Wharton students are taught to find solutions that actually work, not just ones that sound good. The best solutions create win-win results in which care is taken to ensure that each party in a dispute is satisfied with the outcome. This contrasts sharply with the rhetoric Trump uses to excite his followers. Treating competitors humanely is more likely to result in successful negotiations than calling opponents "bums" and "losers" or making misogynist statements about women or disparaging and threatening comments about entire ethnicities, religions or groups of people. In business, you don't gain customers by insulting them, and you don't make deals by bullying your potential partners.

His proposals also feed the caricature of business leaders as heartless automatons who care only about profits and mathematical models. It is true that Wharton students then and now are expected to have a deep understanding of finance and quantitative management tools. However, it is simply wrong to assume Wharton students are taught to follow data blindly. My Wharton training taught me that quantitative tools are just that -- tools -- and do not replace values and emotions in decision making.

Good business leaders who care about their profits should learn a very different lesson from history than what Trump is teaching. In the United States, economic prosperity was created and has been sustained by leaders who developed effective tax codes, education plans, infrastructure, health care, and housing that support an innovative and consuming middle class. Business leaders benefit from mutually reciprocal economic growth. And lest we forget, much of our economic growth has been fueled by immigration. Indeed, immigrants and their children started 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Trump is one of many who fail to see the benefit of promoting economic prosperity for everyone, not just for themselves. Contrary to Trump's claim that his tax plan would be most beneficial to the poor and middle class, both conservative and progressive analysts conclude that most of the benefits would fall to the wealthiest households. In the process, Trump's plan would add $9-10 trillion to the public balance sheet over ten years. That's a lousy business plan, and it would be disastrous for this country.

If Trump were true to his business school training, he would know that "Making America Great Again" is a slogan, not serious plan, and that his half-baked proposals would only aggravate existing problems rather than achieve some imagined view of "greatness." As scholars at Wharton and other social scientists repeatedly demonstrate, income inequality, overly restrictive immigration policy, and rapidly accelerating national debt only undermine long-term economic growth.

While it might be easy to write off Trump as another politician in search of cheap applause, he presents a broader threat. His campaign should be cause for serious concern for good business leaders by damaging the reputations many of us have worked so hard to secure and who actually have the training and skills needed to fix the problems we face. His approach wasn't taught at our mutual alma mater, and it isn't shared by most successful business leaders I've worked with throughout my career. Donald Trump is an entertainer, but he certainly does not represent the business school I went to or the country I love.