Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ex-Presidents and Ex-CEOs - could the latter behave like the former?

I am fascinated with the office of the Presidency of the United States. Perhaps because I am an American, I feel that it is a unique position, unequaled by any other position in the world. On the other hand, the executive of my country shares some characteristics with executives of other countries and organizations, including executives of business firms.

What would happen if we treated business firm executives similar to the way in which we treat Presidents? I'm talking about the good things here - namely, an effort to preserve the history of the executive in question - not only an account of the person's life, but also an exploration of the factors which shaped the executive. Now perhaps we have a deep understanding of some executives - Steve Jobs is an obvious, oft-studied example - but what of others?

From that perspective, it's fascinating to read some of the excerpts from an address delivered on August 10, 1962. The occasion was the dedication of the Herbert Hoover Library Museum in West Branch, Iowa. (The location itself is interesting - Hoover by this time lived in New York City, and had long been associated with California, but the library was located in Iowa, where Hoover grew up.) The remarks below were delivered by someone from a neighboring state - another former President of the United States, Harry Truman. In addition to holding the job that Hoover had once held, Truman was a keen student of history. Some of his remarks on the Presidency should be viewed in that light.

I have always been very much interested in the history of the Presidency. I have always been very much interested in the preservation of that history in a manner that can be properly taken care of and that can be available to the youngsters of this coming generation, in whom is imposed now the welfare of this great nation of ours -- the greatest republic in the history of the world.

The Presidency, and I don't say that because I have been President of the United States, is the most important office in the history of the world. And you don't get it by inheritance, you don't get it by any other way except by the people wanting you to be President of the United States, and then you have the greatest responsibility in the history of the world. Nobody knows that better than I do and I've had one hell of a time with it, I don't mind telling you....

You don't know how much I appreciate the privilege of being invited to come here and take part in the opening of this great Library of President Herbert Hoover. I think the world of him, as I said before. He did a job for me that nobody else in the world could have done, he kept millions of people from starving to death after the Second World War just as he did after the First World War for Woodrow Wilson, and when I asked him if he would be willing to do the job he never hesitated one minute, he said "Yes, Mr. President, I'll do it" And he did a most wonderful job of keeping these people from starving, and what more can a man do? As the Admiral has told you about his record and his career, it is unequalled in the history of this country. I've always been fond of him, and of course after he saved all of these people from starving I feel that I am one of his closest friends and he is one of my closest friends and that's the reason I am here....

It's a great thing and I want to say to you, you youngsters, you'd better start studying the Presidency of the United States and how it works because one of you one of these days will be President of the United States, but I wouldn't advise you to try to be because if you ever get there you'll be sorry you were there -- the happiest day I ever spent in my life was the day I left the White House.

A couple of things should be noted. First, in speaking at the Hoover Library dedication, Truman was returning a favor, since Hoover had spoken at the dedication of the Truman Library on July 6, 1957.

Second, for those who are a little rusty on 20th century history, Truman and Hoover had vastly divergent political opinions. While Truman admired Hoover's humanitarian work, he took several swipes at Hoover's presidency during the Presidential campaigns of 1958 and 1952 (when Truman campaigned on Stevenson's behalf). Yet despite this, Truman and Hoover found common ground, much as Ford and Carter found common ground after the conclusions of their Presidencies, and Bush 41 and Clinton found common ground after their Presidencies had ended.

Now business organizations sometimes have instances in which a new leader takes over from a former one in less than pleasant circumstances - similar to the way in which the Republicans win the White House from the Democrats and vice versa. But I can't think of any situations in which a business leader actively seeks advice from someone that he or she displaced. While Truman invited Hoover to talk about post-war famine relief, and Carter asked for Ford's help in the Panama Canal treaty debates, can anyone name a time when Steve Jobs asked Gil Amelio for help? Or Gil Amelio asked Michael Spindler? Or Michael Spindler asked John Sculley? Or John Sculley went to NeXT for advice?

I know that executives are perceived as part of the exclusive 1%, but perhaps ex-executives should treat themselves as members of a former club, just like ex-Presidents do. Now in some cases that might not be possible - for example, Mark Hurd's duties at Oracle probably preclude him from advising Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard - but perhaps in some cases, some friendly advice from the ex might be helpful.
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