Imagine the situation. Your company has been advertising for a new CEO to take on the role at a critical time, with the economy fragile, uncertainty in the air and brains whirling to absorb and analyze the immense scale of societal change the country has undergone in only a few months. There are real divisions within the company, cliques upon cabals, and the sheer scale of the task is daunting.
Your executive search team has been busy at work for months. The brief you issued was clear and simple: We need the best. But they know, without you needing to say it, that the presentation has to be right too. You don’t have a very good record of diversity at the very top, with only one minority hire, and a woman has never held the position. So that’s an implicit part of it as well. Because you know, and your search team understands, that how others perceive you has a direct effect on your performance in the marketplace.
In any case, the team has narrowed the field down to two candidates, a binary choice. This one or that one. Who looks better, more capable, more plausible? Who has the better track record? The blinds are drawn and the laptop booted up—the inevitable deck. The recruitment company’s expensively redesigned logo swoops in and soars out again, and it’s down to business. There they are. The final two candidates, the best that can be found, the cream of their profession.
It’s two white guys. Not just that, it’s two old white guys. One’s in his mid-70s, the other’s pushing 80. But there’s more. As men of that vintage, both candidates have history. The older guy has been known for being a bit handsy, maybe just a generational thing, no malice, but the image sticks. He’s a bit vague, too, maybe not as tight on detail as he was in his prime, whenever that was. Some people say it’s more than that, say he’s got serious cognitive problems. Maybe. He’s been in the room for years, but he’s never been the guy.
The other guy, the younger one, seems even more problematic. He’s boasted of treating women in ways that just aren’t acceptable. His interpersonal relationships are notoriously fraught, and he has a track record of hiring and firing at a rapid rate. His media appearances are erratic, and he tends to say things that turn out to be, well, open to question. And he’s sensitive and thin-skinned: 360° reviewing hasn’t caught up with him. But these are your two candidates.
Imagine that scenario. Except you can’t, because it would never happen in the corporate or commercial world. In an evidence-based, objective selection process, neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden would get close to a senior position, let alone the leadership of a major organization. Their considerable flaws in both conduct and character would be overwhelming black marks, and their personal appeal, such as it is, would not be enough to compensate. Each might initially score highly on experience, but a more detailed examination would raise a number of red flags, from President Trump’s financial failures to Vice President Biden’s qualified support for segregation.
Business is not the same as politics, of course. The latter is a game of persuasion, an appeal to hearts as much as to minds, and the voters are not hawkeyed search professionals but time-poor customers with a thousand priorities competing for their attention and interest. In campaigning, one expects a degree of hyperbole, of smooth words and warm promises, but their rather shaky veracity is priced in. Few people expect a politician’s pledges to be legally binding. Someone running for office must also manage the expectations of a patchwork coalition of “stakeholders”, from east to west, city to countryside, from the wealthiest in society to those who have nothing. Their influence may differ, but each has only one vote.
Surely, though, politics has something to learn from the business world, right? It is ironic that candidates for the vice presidency are probably more professionally scrutinized than most, as presidential hopefuls operate due diligence on their potential running mates, examining them from any number of perspectives. All of that effort, and the hope and expectation remain that they will spend eight years cutting ribbons, planting trees and unveiling plaques.
Even congressional confirmation hearings—potentially in-depth examinations of candidates’ bona fides—are largely partisan affairs. They flare into life only when a juicy scandal emerges, as with the candidacy of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. More often, they are process-driven damp squibs, or, worse, mere safeguards against dynamism and color, as controversial picks are dismissed as unlikely to get through the Senate process, and lowest-common-denominator officials are chosen. The ultimate expression of that is surely the presidency of Gerald Ford, chosen for the VP job because he was “safe” and “steady.”
No one is suggesting that the selection of our political leaders should be contracted out to Korn Ferry or Robert Half. Democratic legitimacy is a vital part of any developed system of government, and the vox populi cannot be denied. Shouldn’t we try, though, to think of some way that more stringency could be introduced into the whole process? That truth and lies should be distinguishable, that experience and competence should be properly weighed and appropriately rewarded. It’s difficult, challenging, daunting—but what is worthwhile that isn’t?