The CEO and the Nation

I do not live in the United States, but it seems impossible to go through a single day without being confronted with the actions of President D Trump. So here goes my third Trump post.

I’d like to start with a point of view very different from my own. For years, I have enjoyed reading Scott Adams’ cartoon, Dilbert. I continue to do so while strongly disagreeing with Adams’ views. In his blog here, Adams describes how he feels that Trump’s detractors should stop seeing his actions through a “Nazi filter” but instead look on them through his “master persuader filter”. He further points out that Trump has done what any star start-up CEO would do.

I agree with Adams that Trump can be better understood as a CEO than as a Nazi. But I think that’s also pretty terrible because there is no such thing as a non-autocratic CEO. A CEO can be benevolent, caring and attentive to employees but never democratic, that’s against the nature of the job. Also, having worked in and closely with a number of start-ups, I find the idea of a society functioning like one horrifying.

A new CEO often brings in his own team with whom he is comfortable. He is expd to model the company’s running in his own image, making it as quick and efficient as possible. In the modern capitalist system, he has only one goal, to maximise shareholder value. To do this, he must take whatever steps necessary, reduce the workforce and cancel non-performing projects. If he or she fails in this, they can be terminated abruptly any time. There is relentless pressure to perform and fend of rival organizations. As the Japanese saying goes, Business is war.

None of the above is true for a nation. The ‘stakeholders’ and employees are one and the same and the idea is to maximize their welfare. Also, the pressure to perform is not as short term and elected officials have a fixed term before re-election barring exceptionally egregious conduct. Finally, the life of successful nations is measured in centuries. What counts over such periods is not people but the institutions they nurture.

The much derided Civil Service is an example. The idea of a professional politically neutral body of people who ran the country irrespective of who was in charge originated in China where it provided civilizational continuity across dynasties for thousands of years. In Europe a patronage system held sway where court noblemen ran secretariats using their own men. With the growth of the British Empire in the 18th century the magnitude of the challenges increased. By the 19th century it was clear that the existing structure wasn’t working. Finally, it was the bureaucratic mess in the Crimean War that prompted the creation of an independent Civil Service based on reports of the Chinese model.

The essence of this system was its independence. The incentive killing job security was actually a necessary feature to get rid of the culture of political patronage. The modern bureaucracy was never designed for efficiency, but to avert national catastrophe.

Likewise consider the obstructionist. There is no room for one in a start-up. If you disagree with the core vision of the company, its best to consider other options. In a society, the plurality of ideas is essential and dissent is critical.  I recently came across a striking example of this in the context of German influenced nations during World War 2 here.

Now, the US is not 1930s Germany and it certainly isn’t Rome circa 50BC. To call it so is to trivialize the cruelty of the Roman Imperium and Nazi violence.

Governing a society and running a company are two very different roles and while both demand responsibility, the skills are very different and rarely embodied in the same person.

There is an old and rather corny story by the Hindi writer Premchand. The Prime Minister of an Indian princely state wanted to retire. The Maharaja charged him with finding a successor before he could leave. The post attracted candidates from far and wide. All were lodged but told the examination would take time.

One day, the younger candidates organized a hockey match. While returning exhausted, they spotted an old farmer struggling to get his cartwheel out of a ditch. Only one man stopped to help the farmer who of course (this is after all a story) turned out to be the Prime Minister in disguise. The man was chosen, not because he was the most able, but because he cared the most. The minister knew the young man would err, but trusted he wold learn from his mistakes and as long as he continued to care for the people in his charge, he would never stray far.

At the time of reading this, I thought it old hokum, but I have come to accept some of the wisdom over time.

Incidentally, there was a case where a national leader dubbed himself his county’s CEO. It was Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of Pakistan.


One response to “The CEO and the Nation

  1. The more I watch the Presidential antics (I don’t have the luxury of your escape), the more he reminds me of Niccolo Machiavelli- and his definition of a prince incapable and inept at holding to power.

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