The O’Brien Factor

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Do business people make good political leaders? This question seems to be particularly relevant these days. Donald Trump wants to be President of the United States while as mentioned yesterday; Kevin O’Leary wants to be leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is a difficult question to answer because the sample size is too small. In The USA, other than a couple of men who dabbled in small businesses (Harry Truman made and sold hats, for example), the only two business people to occupy the White House were the two Bushes. It was far more likely that you had your origins as a farmer than a store owner.

In Canada, our second PM was from the world of business and served a single term. After that it was more than a hundred years before Brian Mulroney – a corporate executive – moved into 24 Sussex Drive. Paul Martin was also from business. Both of these men had a long history of political involvement, however, Mulroney from university days. As for Martin, he was the son of a long serving Cabinet Minister and must have picked up a little knowledge of the political sphere from that.

You can make your own verdicts as to how good these men were in their role as government leader, but it is tough to make a judgement on such a small sample.

Even governors and provincial premiers are not a good measure; while the percentages of business people who reach those offices are a little higher, they are far outnumbered by lawyers or even teachers and their results are mixed. It is only when you get to the municipal level that you tend to see a higher percentage of business people take office.

I’ve hardly made a scientific study but it strikes me that it takes a certain kind of mind set to transition from success in business to effectiveness in government.

The case of Larry O’Brien – mayor of Ottawa for one term – might be an object lesson. O’Brien was a successful – if sometimes controversial – entrepreneur and businessman who decided that he knew how to make improvements in city government – though he’d never been elected to any office previously. He handily won the mayoralty in a three way race (with 47% of the vote) and immediately tried to implement his promise of 0% tax increases. It lasted a single year before he had to cave in to the growing demands of an expanding city and raise taxes by a significant amount.

Then there was his management style. This was a man used to getting his own way. The buck stopped with him and if he didn’t like how things were going, he could say: You’re fired! Trouble is you can’t fire the public and you can’t make community organizations do what you tell them. O’Brien soon discovered that managing a city – which was involved in dozens of different policy areas – was far more complicated than running a business that had at most two or three things to focus on.

Then there were the criminal charges. O’Brien had to step down for 2 months to face bribery charges related to the election (the charges were later dropped). When he had left office (defeated – with only 24% of the vote), he admitted that he had completely underestimated and misunderstood the difficulty of political leadership. It’s a lesson others might want to learn from.

And that’s ten minutes.

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