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Chief Executive Officer-in-Chief


The President needs the same skills as a top-notch CEO—only sharper

What characteristics would you say are most important when choosing a company CEO or the next U.S. President? — Simplicio D. Victoria, Los Angeles

If only you'd lopped off the last part of your question! Business leadership is something we've discussed in this column for two years now. But Presidential leadership—that's another matter.

Or is it? When your e-mail arrived, our first thought was that CEOs and Presidents operate in worlds with different stakes, rules, and values. But a review of our six key business leadership characteristics changed our thinking. And while we would never claim to have special insight into the Presidency, we've come to believe there is more overlap than not between running a company and running the country.

Take authenticity, the foremost quality business leaders must possess. It's equally crucial for a President, and for the same reason: trust. When a President is trying to promote a major initiative or lead through a crisis, the nation can't be embroiled in a debate about his or her sincerity. Remember when Senator Clinton's eyes misted over before the New Hampshire primary? The veracity of her tears fixated the country. Without doubt, every candidate's realness will be scrutinized before Nov. 4. But a sitting President should be miles past such doubt. People may disagree with him or her on the merits, but never on the motives.

Having the vision thing, as it has come to be known, is the next universal leadership characteristic. Business leaders can improvise in fast-changing markets, but ultimately, a clearly conceived, inspirational mission is critical for real progress, and the same goes for a President. And as in business, having a Presidential vision doesn't mean announcing: "Here's where we're going." It means making the case until Presidential tonsils bleed, with a story that says: "Here's how our destination will make life better for our nation and for you personally."

An innate ability to hire great people is the third characteristic CEOs and Presidents can't live without. And not just hire them but utilize them—challenging them for new ideas and deeper insights. Now, this is straightforward in business, where leaders employ their direct reports, and thus have the clout to remove incompetents and resisters. But Presidents face a tougher scenario. They appoint direct reports who inherit staffs that may not support the Administration's agenda. So they have to pick Cabinet members who can engage and motivate reluctant teams. Further, Presidents need the courage and discipline to dispatch Cabinet members who fall short—whether it opens a political can of worms or not.

Fourth comes resilience—the capacity to bounce back after defeat without feeling, well, defeated. CEOs regularly get the wind knocked out of them; for Presidents, double it. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that the best American Presidents have all been able to learn from their mistakes. That's resilience at it's best: Every time you fail, you get back—wiser—on that horse.

Fifth, effective CEOs have the uncanny ability to see around corners. They can feel market shifts in their fingertips. Such a skill is even more important for a President, given the world we live in. But we're not just thinking of homeland security. Immigration and entitlements also demand prescient leadership. CEOs who can see around corners have an advantage; they can act quickly. For Presidents, seeing around corners means something more: galvanizing bipartisan support. That's harder by an order of magnitude.

And finally, like any good CEO, a President must execute. It doesn't matter if a leader generates action or channels it through others. What matters is that promises get kept and plans get completed, whether it's moving a bill through Congress or managing a crisis, like a war or a hurricane.

Look, when the primary voters go to the polls on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, many will be focused on the issues that attract them to one of their party's candidates or another. But in November, when the general election is down to two candidates—or maybe three—another factor on the decision screen should be leadership. Its characteristics, in the corporate world and the political arena, are universal—and unmistakable.

Jack and Suzy Welch await your questions. E-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their video podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm

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