RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Should politics look to business for its heroes?

Russell Wangersky
Published on January 12, 2017

Is a businessperson the hero we need?

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Why would anyone pick a businessperson — especially a successful businessperson — to run a country or a province?

Well, maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe the question is: should we?

And while we’re at it, why would we want a government to run government like a business?

It could be that we are going about this all wrong.

I mean, you can see why it would be attractive: successful, first-generation businesspeople ooze confidence. They know what’s right, and they go ahead and do it.

TC Media Atlantic's regional columnist.
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Trouble is, corporate governance is one thing, while government is a lot more nuanced than that. While it might be attractive and comforting to pick someone who fervently believes they always know what’s right, it has to be more successful to pick a leader who’s trying to find the right direction. (This comes to mind as Kevin O’Leary toys with running for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership.)

But there are significant differences.

In the modern world of business, there is no space for empathy or caring for those at the bottom rung: if a division of your company isn’t doing well in the current economic climate, the current definition of the good businessperson is the ruthless one, the one who says there have to be cuts, and makes them.

Another trait of the successful businessperson? If you take over a new business or division, you quickly gut the upper ranks of that business and replace the management with loyal acolytes — people you already know and trust.

It’s scorched earth, not smooth transition.

Leave everything else about Donald Trump aside, he’s exactly that in the U.S. — dismissing Obama appointees as of the date of Trump’s inauguration, even though, in key roles such foreign diplomatic posts and the oversight of the care of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there are no replacements in sight, and there may not be for months. That’s hardly helpful to the nation, though it is a successful business strategy (especially because replacements can be near-instantaneous).

From a business point of view, that makes sense. But governments need a little more continuity, and a little less slavish loyalty.

Then there’s the question of succession: find a really successful businessperson, and you’ll find someone who literally cannot conceive that someone else could do a better job — and, in fact, will actively cut out and remove potential threats to their leadership. That’s fine in a business, but for governments, terms in office tend to be comparatively short, and it’s far better to have a culture that develops and fosters replacements than one that leaves a dead zone behind.

Danny Williams was a highly successful businessman who ran the Newfoundland and Labrador government the same way — when he left office, none of his cabinet ministers even wanted to run for his job, until the interim leader (normally a caretaker position until a new leader is selected) agreed to take the job.

The other thing is the cult of the winners.

We really only see and hear about the business winners — there are far more average, better-than-break-even businesses, and still more that actually fail.

The beauty of that in the business sphere is that a supremely confident businessperson can gamble with his or her own money and win big: the goal is to always be bigger than last year, something that can hurt taxpayers, too. If the businessperson loses big, well, they simply disappear off our radar. There is no annual bottom-50 list of failed businesses.

But when the gamble is with big public dollars, the businessperson can fade off into memory, but the debts stay on the people’s books forever.

It’s not that government can’t learn things from business — it can.

The problem is that government and business have fundamentally different ends.

As for heroes saving the day? That’s for comic books.


Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tcTwitter: @Wangersky.