One of Donald Trump's favorite arguments in favor of Donald Trump is that his business successes make him perfectly suited for the Oval Office.
He brags about his net worth, his negotiating skills and his contacts overseas. But there’s little reason to believe these things would actually help him as president. When it comes to holding the top political job in the country, political experience is far more relevant than money-making experience, whether you've been an entrepreneur or a chief executive.
“Skills are far less transferable than we think they are,” Gautam Mukunda, a professor at Harvard Business School, told The Huffington Post. “Even when you move from one company to another, you may not be successful. When you move from a company to the government, that’s a larger leap.”
It turns out that while business experience does hone certain skills, it's a very specific and particular kind of skill set, research shows. In fact, even if an executive has “business experience,” it doesn't necessarily qualify him or her for just any “business job” -- much less for what is arguably the most important job in the world.
Executives who left General Electric, widely considered to be an incubator of superior management talent, were less likely to succeed outside the company if they took jobs at places that were unlike GE, according to a 2006 study from researchers at Harvard Business School.
Bob Nardelli, a longtime GE executive who nearly nabbed the CEO spot at the company, was brought in to run Home Depot in 2000. He was by all accounts an overpaid disaster in the role. Skills that were well-suited to GE’s culture -- a place, under CEO Jack Welch, with an intense focus on performance, where people were routinely fired -- didn’t fit at Home Depot, which had a more laid-back culture, as Michael Useem, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in a 2007 podcast.
If GE and Home Depot aren’t similar enough for a leader to make the switch, think about all the ways in which the U.S. government is different from real estate, reality TV or skating rink management -- indeed, from any business you can think of.
“However much Obama wants to fire John Boehner, he can’t.”
We don’t even know much about Trump’s skills based on his business experience, Mukunda said. Trump had a huge head start in moneymaking, thanks to his wealthy father Fred, also a real estate developer. “Whatever Trump’s posturing as a self-made man, his most impressive achievement is as [Fred] Trump’s son,” Mukunda said.
The Trump campaign did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
If Trump, or any other CEO, were to become the leader of the free world, he would in many ways be much more constrained than he was during his business career. With the backing of the board of directors, a chief executive can fire just about anyone. Trump’s made a catchphrase out of it. The president, on the other hand, is not so lucky. “However much Obama wants to fire John Boehner, he can’t,” Mukunda said.
Pretty much the only goal of a for-profit company is to make money. A nation’s goals are more complicated. Securing peace and prosperity, and doing it in a way that addresses the competing needs of millions of different people, is a much more ambiguous endeavor.
The U.S. economy is not like a big corporation, something that most CEOs fail to understand, wrote economist Paul Krugman almost 20 years ago in a Harvard Business Review column titled “A Country Is Not a Company.” "The U.S. economy is in some sense not hundreds but tens of thousands of times more complex than the biggest corporation," Krugman wrote in that piece.
Of course you need leadership skills to be president, but to date, the most successful presidents haven’t gotten those skills in the business world. Historically, in fact, the presidents with the most business experience have presided over periods of slow or no growth in the economy.
“It’s amazing how much more successful the economy has been for presidents without business experience,” Robert McElvaine, a history professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, told HuffPost. In 2012, McElvaine examined presidents from Herbert Hoover onward, looking at their business experience or lack thereof and the country’s growth or decline in gross domestic product during their administrations.
“No woman has ever been elected to the presidency, but that’s not a good argument against Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina.”
“The startling bottom line is that the nation’s GDP has grown more than 45 times faster under presidents with little or no business experience than it has under presidents with successful business careers,” McElvaine wrote in The Washington Post in 2012.
Of course, history shouldn’t hold us back from doing things differently. No woman has ever been elected president, but that’s not a good argument against Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina.
But electing someone to the Oval Office when they have virtually no experience in politics is dicey. As any hiring manager knows, it’s hard to predict how someone will do in a role if they’ve never done anything like it before.
Mukunda’s done a lot of research into presidents, particularly the ones he calls “unfiltered” -- meaning they hadn’t spent much time at the upper levels of the political system before taking office. These men are typically the ones who make the boldest moves, taking steps no one has ever thought of before. Sometimes, that works out.
“Sometimes you get Abraham Lincoln,” Mukunda told HuffPost. More often, though, “you get disasters.” He cited Woodrow Wilson, who had little political experience and a bad track record of negotiation when he was president of Princeton, and who failed to get the League of Nations ratified. Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding also had very little political experience before they came to the White House. Both men are considered among the worst presidents.
Electing someone without a track record is a huge risk, Mukunda said. “When you’re dealing with the most important job in the world, just how many risks do you want to take?”