CNN announced Wednesday that it will give former Starbucks CEO and potential independent presidential candidate Howard Schultz yet another opportunity to publicly humiliate himself. But the brown-nosing of billionaires isn’t the only story here: Howard’s ill-advised presidential venture should be a stark reminder that government is not a business, and that business is not politics.
Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for Howard. As a fellow Seattleite, I have watched in awe as he has built Starbucks into a spectacularly profitable global brand. And as someone who has founded or funded over three-dozen companies across a broad range of industries, I can say with authority and confidence that the skills and temperament necessary to lead a business to such outsized success are extremely rare.
But in addition to my business interests, I have been deeply engaged in political and civic projects since I was a kid. And having worked closely for my whole adult life with elected leaders on dozens of civic and political campaigns and projects, I can say with equal authority and confidence that political leadership is profoundly different from business leadership. In fact, they’re often antithetical.
That is why I believe that Howard would likely make a terrible president, no matter what his policy agenda was. Indeed, the resumé on which he is running—that of an immensely, successful, experienced, and charismatic business leader—is more often a recipe for political failure than success.
The main job of any leader is to get other people to execute your agenda, and to execute it well. But the circumstances surrounding business and political leadership are entirely different. In business, everybody in your organization works for you. You define the goals, the culture, and the terms of service. You can hire, fire, promote, and demote at will. A successful executive certainly nurtures the input and innovation of others, but the entire corporate organizational structure ultimately bends to the will of the CEO.
Operating in such a structured environment, Howard has clearly proven to be a successful and effective executive. But Starbucks is not a democracy. And this may be why Howard treats the backlash to the idea of his presidency as fundamentally wrong—or “un-American,” as he repeatedly labels Democrats who disagree with him.
In American politics, everybody—including you—works for the American people. Even more challenging, the representatives and senators a president relies on to enact his agenda work for different people, sometimes with widely divergent interests, ideologies, and beliefs. The president cannot hire and fire at will. The judicial and legislative branches are independent, many powers are distributed to the states, and the professional bureaucracy serves as a natural buffer against wild swings in presidential mood.
Leading the American republic requires very different skills than leading an American corporation does. And perhaps even more importantly, it requires a very different temperament.
If you run a business for a long time, particularly a large and successful one, the combination of wealth, power, and clarity of purpose leaves you very accustomed to people doing what you want. If you are charismatic, it is very easy to conclude that people eagerly do what you want because that is what they want to do—rather than because you sign their paychecks. And if you’re not charismatic, it’s easy to conclude that you are.
After decades leading Starbucks, and after accumulating billions of dollars of wealth, Howard is no doubt accustomed to extraordinary levels of obeisance. Leadership feels easy when all of the people around you hang on your every word and whim.
But political leadership is nothing like that. Yes, you do have tremendous status and power. But in a democracy, virtually no one, save your personal staff, has to do what you want. The legislators and regulators you must work with, the press, civil society, even your political appointees—none of these people can easily be fired. Worse, for good or for ill, all presidents will find many people, even in their own parties, actively working to subvert both their agendas and their administrations.
Leading a democracy thus requires a different temperament and skill set than leading a corporation, where everyone is compelled to follow orders, and subversion is a punishable offense. Effective political leaders are geniuses at persuading, cajoling, and manipulating. They build coalitions, make compromises, and construct compelling narratives.
The unmitigated disaster of the Trump presidency is a perfect example of what happens when a person accustomed to, and only suited to, commanding people, confronts the realities of democratic governance. We get chaos. Paralysis. Rage.
This is why when candidates like Howard say “We need to run the government like a business,” I know they are not just wrong, but worse, doomed to fail. The government is not a business with an unambiguous objective set by an all-powerful executive. It is a collection of disparate coalitions, competing interests, and distributed powers subject to an extraordinarily intricate system of checks, balances, and public will. Saying we should run the government like a business is a category error. It’s like saying we should fly an airplane like a unicycle. A Schultz administration built on that principle would surely crash and burn if his presidential campaign didn’t mercifully crash and burn first.
In the interests of transparency, I should admit that I also personally hate Howard’s economic agenda. His deficit-obsessed opposition to Medicare-for-All and debt-free college is nothing more than trickle-down economics without the overt racism. To be clear, there is absolutely nothing “centrist” or “moderate” about a policy agenda of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of the powerful, and wage suppression and benefit cuts for everyone else. Yet bad policy is the least of Howard’s problems. He is simply not qualified for the job.
The government is not a business, and business is not politics. That is why successful corporations like Starbucks never seek out retired politicians as CEOs. And that is why we should be highly suspect of business leaders running the White House. Running a large business does not necessarily disqualify you from political leadership. But it isn’t the predictor of success many people think.