Friday, November 28, 2008

Souling Out

In an interview conducted earlier this month, President Bush said he wanted to be remembered "as a person who, first and foremost, did not sell his soul in order to accommodate the political process." I found this to be quite a revealing statement: Bush sees himself as a renegade against the system; an ideologue of his own soul at war with the soul of a nation he was supposed to lead.

When Bush became President, he and his administration felt obligated to take the wrecking ball to whatever existing culture, institution, assumption or best practice that conflicted with their personal views on what was right and what was wrong. This does not sound so unfamiliar to me, actually. I see this very same dynamic with many new CEOs being hired into established companies -- they also see their hiring as a mandate to wipe clean anything that is not how they would like it. Many times, it's exactly what the board wants the CEO to do.

The difference is, of course, that the market, shareholders, clients, and the board of directors are there to help keep a CEO's vision grounded in a pragmatic sphere. The CEO is judged quarter-to-quarter, and the market would not be so kind or forgiving of, say, an "unending acquisition spree" with "no timetable" for integration or value creation. Eventually, the successful CEO will get a sense of what works and what does not work, and this sense will trump what he/she thinks is right and wrong. This pragmatic shift is one of the subtle reasons why so many elite prefer capitalism over any other system -- capitalism is the great cleanser of baseless ideology. Well-managed capitalism forces reverence for the consumer/customer.

Not surprisingly, the first MBA President acted more like a CEO and less like a public office administrator. In terms of his style of leadership being the right fit for government administration, America might not have ever thought George W. Bush was the best man to be President... but he had a rich familial heritage that helped him gain instant relevance in 2000, and had a cowboy style of retribution that resonated effectively after 9/11... keeping him relevant in 2004.

With all the damage (that is, objective, observable damage to institutions that have traditionally defined America) that Bush's particular style of leadership has created over the past eight years, we all owe it to ourselves and our country to remember Bush's statement above, and to remember to ask questions of future candidates that will give us a better sense of how much stock politicians put into the political process. I think we will want to know, because I would argue that running for a top political office requires some accommodation of the political process.