When Business Leaders Make the Jump to Politics

If you’ve succeeded in getting your company out of debt, do you think you could do the same for an entire country? If you turned your business from a small venture to a thriving enterprise, would your customers also buy into the idea of you running their city?

Sometimes, business leaders want to get involved in politics, believing they have what it takes to drive their community forward. While some entrepreneurs-turned-politicians have had successful terms in office at various levels of government, others have done more harm than good. Going from running a business to governing a country or a city might seem like a simple transition in some ways, but they’re quite different. So, what could motivate an entrepreneur to become a politician? 

What it Means to be a Public Servant

Many people want Oprah Winfrey to run for the U.S. presidency. A lot of it has to do with the belief that she understands people, that she hasn’t lost sight of the many struggles she’s overcome to get where she is today. Her extensive philanthropical work reflects that, as does her personal brand, which is built mainly around positivity, self-improvement, and compassion. Many Americans were touched by her remarkable speech at the 2018 Golden Globes, which led many observers to believe (or hope) that Winfrey was planning a political career; in the minds of many Americans, Oprah is the ideal public servant. However, soon after the speech, Winfrey denied any political ambitions – to the disappointment of many. 

Judging from those who have made the jump from the corporate world to the political sphere, it seems that several would-be politicians fail to realize that being a politician means serving the people. It’s a social service role, not an entrepreneurial venture.

Politics involves a more complex type of teamwork than what you’ll find at a company. As noted by Fast Company, far more comes into play when deciding on a course of action in government. What’s more, many of these choices won’t only affect immediate constituents, as business decisions often do, but they could impact other cities, states, countries, or even the entire world. There’s far more to consider than bottom lines or quarterly profits; in many cases, lives are literally at stake.

 What Motivates the Transition?

It might seem natural for an entrepreneur to seek control over how their country handles issues like trade. The U.S., for example, has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) under President Donald Trump, something Trump pledged to do as a candidate. (Much of Trump’s economic policies as a candidate were positioned around his own image as a business titan.) TPP includes tariffs, as well as environmental and labour rules that all countries involved agree to uphold. It especially impacts export growth and the prices of goods and services.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has recently expressed interest in running for the U.S. presidency in 2020. Schultz may have good intentions, but it’s also possible that he just wants a bigger empire to rule. According to early polls, many Americans don’t think much of him as a candidate, and one of the main reasons seems to be the perception that he’s out of touch with what people want. And while Starbucks is a huge company that has enjoyed success on a global scale, Schultz has made his share of bad and/or unpopular decisions as a businessman, like selling Seattle’s beloved NBA team, the SuperSonics, to a group of Oklahoma businessmen. For his part, Schultz provides indifferent answers to important questions while seeming to lack concern for issues like student debt repayment and racial profiling, and he’s complained about the public’s perception of billionaires. Judging from his apparent lack of connection to the everyday populace, it’s difficult to see what his motives are beyond ego and the pursuit of power.

Some business moguls seek greater attention and praise through politics. Kevin O’Leary, the Canadian-born businessman and TV personality, ran for leadership of the federal Conservative Party of Canada in 2017, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory south of the border. For O’Leary, who spends most of his time in the U.S., being prime minister seemed to be a part-time job or the way to grow his brand. His own former Shark Tank co-star Arlene Dickinson told the CBC that O’Leary “doesn’t do anything that doesn’t offer a path to power, fame or fortune – and that should have us all afraid.” (O’Leary quit the Conservative Party leadership campaign after about four months.)

 Who Succeeds – and Why?

Some politicians truly care about serving their community. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013, positioned himself as someone who made decisions based on statistics, results, and practicality. As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, “[Bloomberg] won a huge public-health victory by restricting smoking and made more progress than many people realize on obesity. Bloomberg rewrote archaic zoning laws, so they were no longer based on the notion that factories and residences were the main uses for New York’s real estate… He presided over a decline in both crime and the jail population.” While crime rates did fall, Bloomberg’s “stop-and-frisk” policy took a tremendous toll on minorities in the city, and in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Nevertheless, Bloomberg is seen as having had a positive effect on the city.

Another successful example is Herman Mashaba, a self-made South African millionaire and the former mayor of Johannesburg (2016-2019). Mashaba owns a successful line of natural hair products, Black Like Me. He started small in politics by chairing a seat in the Free Market Foundation, a liberal organization focusing on democracy and human rights, and successfully constructed homes in poor areas of Johannesburg. Mashaba seems to lead strictly and unapologetically, with an understanding of the problems his city faces.

Both are successful examples of entrepreneurs who didn’t go after presidential seats, but who sought to better their immediate communities. Maybe the answer to successfully transitioning from business to politics lies in beginning small, like Mashaba and Bloomberg, rather than trying to become CEO of an entire nation.

Josephine Mwanvua | Contributing Writer



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