As presidential candidates Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina like to keep telling us, being a CEO gives them exactly the right skills to lead this country. Does it? There's plenty of management experts who can vouch for or discount such thinking. Even Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan seemed to throw cold water on that idea last week in Detroit when he said: “I don’t think because you are a CEO you have the right tools. My experience in Washington and in politics–it’s kind of like 3-dimensional chess and you can lie.”
But one thing is clear: watching the GOP race for the White House is giving us plenty of rich material on what it takes to succeed and what not to do once you’re on top (ie. Trump’s latest weird twitter controversy). One of these candidates or both may eventually fail but that doesn’t mean they haven’t employed some crafty ways to win the hearts and minds of voters–and in the process, provided us with a few lessons in business. Here are my 5 favorite:
1. Make your voice heard: From the outset, it wasn’t difficult to hear Donald Trump’s voice loud and clear among the din of Republican contenders. But it’s been fascinating to see the biggest agitator so far hasn’t been the loud-mouthed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie but Fiorina. And it isn’t lost on many folks that she’s the lone woman in the wolf pack of male candidates. Particularly impressive was how she publicly advocated for herself to be included in the second round of debates even though her numbers were still pretty insignificant. How many times have you heard the line that to succeed you must make your voice heard, even when nobody is paying attention? Knowing who you are and what you are capable of and then forging ahead even when you’re the underdog is a characteristic many successful people have.
2. Be prepared, prepared, prepared: Fiorina won the debate last week because she appeared to be the most prepared out of all the candidates for whatever question came her way. I can’t hear enough from CEOs, entrepreneurs and others about how important preparation is and what short shrift people give this task. For some reason, many people think “winging it” is a sign of intelligence. It’s not. CEOs don’t have a lot of time to prepare but the really good ones know their stuff stone cold before an important event, call, presentation, meeting.
3. Words are a powerful motivational tool: Let’s face it: we don’t have a single idea how Trump or Fiorina would really govern this country. Therefore, what they tell us and how they tell us becomes that much more important. Similarly, great business leaders must motivate through words–how they convey their message is just as important as the message itself. I can’t tell you how many CEOs fail at communicating well, thus demoralizing or disaffecting their workers. Many fall into platitudes and corporate speak. The best business leaders have a great style about their communication–think of Warren Buffett and how almost every businessperson hangs on his every word in the annual letter. Or Jack Welch. A distinct style is an incredibly effective way of galvanizing and motivating workers.
4. You need a lot of stamina: I was recently talking about the qualities of a chief executive at a conference and someone asked if you needed to be “superhuman.” Maybe not exactly superhuman, but part of being a great leader is being able to withstand what others cannot. You have to be calm in the middle of disaster; make decisions when chaos erupts; go right when everyone else is going left. This also includes being physically able to handle a schedule that few would want. Meetings from 5 am, calls well into the night, travel that’s constant and unrelenting. One chief executive said to me it is the absolute most physically demanding job. You saw some of that onstage last week–each candidate had to stand there for three hours of questioning under bright lights and national scrutiny. Others might wilt under the pressure, but if you’re truly built for this job, you can physically endure the demands, which is exactly what they all did.
5. Know when to exit: As I was writing this, news broke that candidate Scott Walker was suspending his campaign. Basically, he looked at the reality of his single digit poll numbers (in some cases, he didn’t even register anymore) and decided to fold. Whatever led to the demise of his campaign, at least he made the right decision: exit when you know you can’t win. Business leaders often find themselves in trouble when they stay in a market or a product for too long, even when the numbers are telling them a story of failure. Part of being a good leader is knowing when to exit, even if that includes yourself, for the greater good of your company or in Governor Walker’s case, for his party. And keep in mind, leaving early always imparts a better aftertaste than overstaying your welcome. I’m sure there are plenty of GOP candidates who feel the same way about their peers.