By Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
June 14, 2018

The wave of cynicism that followed the speculation that Starbucks (SBUX) Chairman Howard Schultz was departing the corner office for the campaign trail reminds us how easy it is for leaders to get typecast. Two very different barriers are: 1) the leader’s reluctance to take a risk and try a career switch and 2) the unwillingness of cynical pundits to take seriously later-career business leaders as newcomers to politics.

On the first barrier, those leaders who control their own thrones see little reason to leave. In my study of CEO succession, The Hero’s Farewell, I termed such leaders as “monarchs.”

Media monarch Rupert Murdoch, at age 87, amazingly has run his news empire for 65 years, taking over from his father after his death. Fellow media baron Sumner Redstone ran his entertainment empire for roughly 50 years until 2016 despite deteriorating command. FedEx (FDX) CEO Fred Smith has led the business he founded for 47 years.

But business leaders do not have to be trapped by their success. Schultz decided that 35 years was long enough for him, and unlike the above monarchs, was able to voluntarily depart. He has other interests beyond the enterprise. Business monarchs generally do not—and live only for the business. It is due to this large societal calling, then, that Schultz can make this voluntary exit.

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins dismissed the initial public enthusiasm for this move, suggesting, “Like many business types with political stars in their eyes…he perhaps lacks the stomach to do what’s necessary to win in presidential politics.”

Similarly, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley dismissed Schultz’s prospects as well as those of other business leaders, telling The New York Times, “The history of business leaders in the White House has not been good. You basically have Herbert Hoover and Donald Trump.”

Apparently he discounts the business experience of George Washington and Harry Truman.

The skeptics are reminiscent of the same groupthink haze we heard three years back. On the day Trump announced his candidacy for president, the major news networks framed it as nothing more than entertainment. Bloomberg’s John Heilemann announced: “Will it get him anywhere close to becoming the nominee or the President of the United States? I think not.” MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle proclaimed: “Can we stipulate for the purposes of this conversation that Donald Trump will never be President of the United States?”

He was taken no more seriously on the political right. At an August 2015 salon-style dinner in then-TV economist Larry Kudlow’s home, 40 deep-pocketed, largely conservative Republican fellow guests debated the qualities of their favorite Republican candidates. I suggested that the missing “elephant in the room” candidate to be discussed was Trump, given his ability to electrify audiences and address disaffected potential voters. The group exploded in gales of laughter, commenting on his lack of public policy experience or service in elected office—let alone his offensive style. The managers of two other campaigns insisted they’d join forces to easily destroy Trump’s candidacy if it lived past Labor Day.

I challenged such pundit ridicule of Trump’s chances in a Fortune article. Regardless of the contribution of voter nativist sentiment, misogyny, racism, and Russian interference, Trump tapped into core iconography of mythic American business figures, which has made them heroic at various times in our history.

Other private sector contenders to the White House such as Schultz, Oprah Winfrey, and Jamie Dimon offer parallel relevant crossover appeal to public service. As with Donald Trump, they may have drawbacks in how they govern, but the debate is over their electability.

Resilience from adversity

Folklorists have highlighted the importance of humble origins for heroes to show a common touch and accessibility.

We look to presidents and business leaders like mythic heroes to provide a path to recovery from setbacks. Trump rebounded from multiple bankruptcies. Dimon was fired from Citigroup (C) in 1999. He eventually took over the troubled Bank One, leading it into a merger with JPMorgan Chase, which resulted in Dimon becoming the most feared and revered global banker.

Winfrey was molested through her childhood and early teens, became pregnant at 14, and lost her son in his infancy. She moved to Tennessee to live with a relative, became an honors student, and got a break to be a radio news anchor at age 19. By 1986, she was hosting her own daytime show and has since accumulated $3 billion of personal wealth.

Schultz came home from school at age 7 to discover his father, a war veteran, was disabled due to an industrial accident. Lacking health insurance, workman’s compensation, or severance, they were financially impoverished and spiritually demoralized. Schultz earned an athletic scholarship to a state college and worked his way through school. Later he drifted through sales roles before he discovered the small regional coffee company called Starbucks, becoming a billionaire as well as a model employer.

Bold, disruptive impact

CEOs can show the same courage, vision, and execution we seek in a U.S. president through their ability to create and spark transformations. They trigger transformation not just in their own business, but across their industry, across sectors, and beyond.

Schultz took Starbucks from 11 to 28,000 stores in 77 countries. It became the standard for premium coffee despite being available in grocery stores everywhere—while its own stores reinvented café society.

Great learners and communicators

Good U.S. presidents must know how to listen, integrate new complex information, sell concepts, and be accountable. With indefatigable energy, many public company CEOs drive nearby ubiquitous campaigns to convey their message around the nation and around the world relying upon vivid imagery.

In 2007, Dimon challenged leading financial regulators prophetically warning of mispriced risk in global markets. After financial markets collapsed, he become the most reliable, trusted, clear voice in congressional hearings untangling complex instruments and reckless practices for the public to understand.

Schultz draws large town hall audiences advancing with vision and hope rather than angry finger-pointing slogans. However virtuous his causes, they are generally defined around his own leadership over pre-existing movements.

Sweeping civic causes

Serving as cabinet officers and commission chairs, they champion national causes. Winfrey has championed issues regarding: heart disease, geopolitics, spirituality, meditation, inter cancer, charity work, and substance abuse, Dimon has gone above and beyond parochial JP Morgan interests to bridge Wall Street, Main Street, and Washington as chairman of the Business Roundtable.

Schultz has passionately launched virtuous, if transitory, initiatives regarding: sustainability, race relations, gun violence, income disparity, economic development, veteran employment, and the budget deficit.

 

Society turns to warriors, diplomats, explorers, technologists, and even business titans, depending on where our greatest uncertainties lie and thus anoint its heroes depending on our needs and the leaders’ personas. With public encouragement, longstanding business titans may increasingly be drawn off their thrones into political campaigns.

The next U.S. president may not be Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Dimon, or Howard Schultz, but Donald Trump is surely not our last business leader. Thus, the political pundits should start to learn about business to learn to judge them rather than to write them off because they did not have a chance to serve as public officials.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management, and author of Firing Back: How CEOs Rebound From Career Disasters.

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