A Failed CEO Is Better Than a Successful Politician
Business setbacks shouldn't disqualify people from public office.
In fact, a flawed professional is better than a perfect politician.
Three candidates from outside politics have emerged atop the Republican contest for president. Donald Trump, the real estate CEO, has consistently led the GOP field, followed by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and surgeon Ben Carson.
The reaction of rivals and pundits has been depressingly trite: All three, we're told, lack the necessary experience to be president. And -- horrors! -- all three have suffered some kind of business failure. Trump’s companies went through bankruptcy. Carly Fiorina was famously fired from H-P. Ben Carson has had malpractice cases brought against him.
In addition to being ignorant and shameful, focusing on perceived failures is a losing hand to play, particularly to the entrepreneurial community. Failure, after all, is a badge of honor. It’s often cited as the inspiration for future success, a rite of passage, whether it’s a failed product or getting fired or a lousy deal. If you’re not failing, you’re not taking the risks you need to succeed. That's business gospel, even if it isn't reaching the politicians in the pews.
If anything, the risk-taking that led to the perceived failures of all three Republican front-runners seems to be the kinds of things the country needs right now.
Trump’s bankruptcies seem to have direct implications for a nation that is very deep in debt. True, the country can’t simply file for Chapter 11 protection, Trump's experiences confronting debt have very practical implications. Say what you want about him, but Trump knows how to be creative when it comes to handling debt. Congress has no such experience with bankruptcy, save for the moral kind.
Plus, Trump is, at base, a deal maker. He puts ideas into action. Some work. Some don't. But he is creative in his thinking and has a solid track record of building successful businesses. Washington has not tasted accomplishment in quite some time.
Then there’s Fiorina. She didn’t cover herself in glory as a CEO. There’s no doubt about that. She had such a contentious relationship with her board of directors that they waited until she was safely out of the country before firing her.
But she is tough and stands up for what she believes. Nothing is more important on the world stage, where the U.S. has seemingly played supporting roles as China has taken over cyberspace, Iran has dominated the Middle East and Russia has invaded wherever suits Vladimir Putin’s fancy. Compromise has brought our foreign policy nothing but derision. Toughness and principle, honed by fights with real wins and losses, is attractive to Republican voters. Fiorina has both in spades.
(Full disclosure: I was news director at the launch of the FOX Business Network in 2007, and we hired Fiorina as an on-air leadership contributor. I personally didn’t think she was a great CEO, nor a very good guest. Our financial arrangement ended when she ran for Senate in California in 2010. Since then, she’s gotten a lot better in front of a camera, for whatever that opinion is worth.)
Finally, there’s Ben Carson. Most of us never get the chance to save a life once. He did it every day. It takes a steady hand, a clear and sober mind and a heroic sense of mission to perform surgeries on the brain, let alone on children. You want experience? Not a single candidate on either side has the kind of experience he has. He is the only candidate who might not find being leader of the free world intellectually challenging enough.
Yes, he has faced malpractice suits. Most doctors have. It's the price of the profession that taking action occasionally leads to adverse outcomes. But inaction always leads to death. Many of his cases were especially risky.
No other candidate has the history of innovation Carson brings. He figured out how to separate conjoined twins at the head. If he can work out that puzzle, imagine what he could do melding diverse philosophies to get his agenda through Washington.
All of these people could bring strengths, skills, and, yes, experience to the job, even though none of them was ever elected. Their so-called failures can actually set them up for success later.
What’s odd is that, in politics, failing -- specifically losing an election -- isn’t usually held against you. Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford. George H.W. Bush lost to Reagan. Bill Clinton was unseated as a sitting governor. Hillary Clinton lost to President Obama.
In each of those cases, the political leaders in question said they learned from their losses and became stronger candidates the next time around. But apparently that narrative isn't supposed to apply to people who have worked outside politics.
None of this is to suggest that Trump, Fiorina or Carson is right for the presidency. Truth is, it's too early to tell. There is a long, long time until the election. Even if someone emerges and gets a healthy leads as the primaries begin, someone could still get caught with the proverbial dead girl or live boy. With this many candidates -- on both sides -- it is impossible to get a clear picture of who will win the votes of a majority of the electorate.
But we do know that Trump, Fiorina and Carson each has experience -- not the kind politicians crow about but rather the kind where actual decisions are made, building upon the right ones and learning from the wrong ones. That counts for something, and should never count against them.
Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.