Obama and McCain Share a Lack of Leadership Experience

What is the value of experience?


With the November election growing ever closer, a liberal colleague of mine asked what I thought about experience as it applies to the White House. (For the sake of full disclosure, TheManager is a fiscally-conservative independent… aren’t all capitalists?)


My friend knows that at virtually all levels of management I argue specific job experience is mostly irrelevant; while maturity, general business acumen and leadership are always essential. When we speak about the top office, however, I commonly believe that some experience can be the difference between catastrophic success and catastrophic failure.


Experience Matters


Whenever you’re talking about the top office, whether the role is a Fortune 500 CEO or our Commander-in-Chief, experience can sometimes count nearly as much or more than other factors.


This is not to say that the only person capable of being the President of the United States is someone who has already been President, but it does propose that someone should have successfully run something (a corporation, a state, a federal government agency perhaps) before they ascend to the highest office in the land.


When a board seeks to move someone into the CEO’s office, they often look for a person with a solid track record at running a similar-sized company or a large business unit within their own company. The rare CEO with no real leadership experience is generally the entrepreneur who started the business in the first place. Of course, this entrepreneur generally knows their business better than anyone and has everything to lose if things go poorly. What does a CEO or the President of the United States personally have to lose if they fail? A stained legacy? A few million dollars? The health of the US economy?


Why is real world leadership experience important regardless of whether you are aspiring to be the President of the United States or the CEO of General Electric? It’s simple, really. Without either skin in the game (true accountability to your decisions) or prior experience in a high office, you never fully realize that what you do can have a negative impact on your world and, more importantly to me, my world. Without the experience of being in charge of something, you’ve never had to deal with the actual consequences of your group’s actions.


A great example of this is the current mess in Iraq. While I’m fairly certain George W. Bush didn’t expect us to still be heavily involved after all these years, the point is that we are, and it was through his actions that we got here. As the top officer of the company we call America, he is accountable for our company’s actions. Having placed us in this position, I suspect he would choose a different path next time – that’s called “learning from experience.”


What Does This Mean For Barack Obama?


As a US Senator with incredibly short tenure, Barack Obama has voted for or against various bills over the last three and a half years without the accountability that comes from holding the top office. In other words, he and his fellow legislators (McCain included) can argue a bill’s merits and decide whether or not to support it without the requirement that they care about the final and real effects of their decisions. This is not to say Obama doesn’t care, the fact is that as a legislator he is not required to care.


By their very nature, individual members of a legislative body are insulated from the full impact of their decisions. (And our founding fathers wouldn’t have it any other way – the concept of our bicameral legislature was, in part, created to allow elected officials to vote their conscience, not just the popular choice.) In some ways, legislative bodies are a lot like high school student councils. They act important and make rulings like “more skim milk in the lunchroom” without any real responsibility over the outcomes of their decision making.


When you hold the top office, as Harry S. Truman said, the buck stops here. It doesn’t matter if you’re the head of General Motors, Microsoft or the entire free world; when you’re on top, you are accountable. (See George W’s approval ratings if you doubt that he is accountable.)


Does Obama’s lack of previous accountability disqualify him for the presidency? Of course not. However, this inexperience coupled with his relatively short tenure as a legislator (Barack Obama also served as a state senator in Illinois for seven years prior to joining the US Senate in 2005), leaves us searching for some record that demonstrates accountability to his decisions.


I’m not being facetious, but electing Barack Obama feels like we’re making someone the CEO of Mattel who’s only leadership experience comes from being a regional manager for Toy R Us.


The 44th President of the United States must have the ability to make sound decisions and lead America through a very tough time. Obama may very well have this ability, we simply do not know.


Okay, So What About John McCain?


John McCain, of course, suffers from the same record of non-accountability that plagues Obama, though McCain has longer tenure in a national legislative role (25 years). John McCain has never run a state – as Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and more than a dozen other former US Presidents had – and he’s never run a successful company. We have no idea how McCain will lead or whether his decisions will be sound.


I know what you’re thinking: George W. Bush ran a state and see what he’s done to America? I won’t waste time debating the merits or demerits of our current Commander-in-Chief, other than to say most of the issues that led to the current economic downturn are outside of the scope of what we want our presidents to do – though we do expect them to fix it.


Just as Jimmy Carter is sometimes unjustly blamed for the energy crisis and stagflation during his term, and Bill Clinton is sometimes unjustly credited with the positive economic conditions enjoyed during his tenure, US Presidents (like NFL coaches) are often given too much credit or blame for the current situation.


This, interestingly, validates my point about the lack of accountability for legislative bodies. No one stood up in the 1970s and blamed individual members of congress for the economy, and no one is doing so today. They are simply not individually accountable for any of their votes (save for the few controversial pieces that cross their desks).


Success at the highest levels is a combination of leadership and experience. Even great leaders make mistakes, though what makes them great is that they learn from their mistakes, and they take responsibility for their actions and the actions of their entire team. Moreover, they understand how their decisions effect every stakeholder.


Prediction: Our Next US President Will Be Senator…


Good or bad, the consequences of which US Senator we elect in November will be felt for decades. The eventual winner, and maybe more importantly their cabinet, will play a critical role in determining how deep and how long the current recession lasts. (Is it officially a recession, yet?) Because we lack a candidate with true leadership experience, we are at the mercy of luck and their cabinet selections.


TheManager is hopeful that no matter who wins in November, that they remember something every successful business leader understands: for every action, there is a reaction – nothing happens in a vacuum. When we look at the successful US Presidents over the last 219 years, it’s clear they had an understanding of this concept.


Likewise, when we examine the record of those presidents with less than stellar success, we see numerous examples of decisions made and carried out with no full understanding of the consequences or the end game. Vietnam (LBJ), the Iraq War (GW Bush), wage and price controls (Nixon), the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (Hoover) – all of these are now seen as ill-conceived plans that cost America dearly. The question that plagues TheManager is: how much will the decisions of Obama or McCain cost us? No one knows and no one will know for many years. Since this will be the first time one of them has held a top job, we can only guess what that means for America.