Obama vs. Romney: Founder CEO vs. corporate executive?

Writing in The New Republic this summer, Walter Kirn observed that Obama and Romney often appear to talk past each other, and compared them to "separate halves of one lobotomized brain."

Leaving the corpus callosum intact, the comparison that I might reach for instead is between a founding CEO and a corporate executive.

Two Archetypes

When running for office in 2008, Obama sounded like many startup founders I've heard - driven by a profound sense of mission, exuding great emotional intensity, and placing a significant emphasis on hope, change, and denting the universe. 

The archetype of the founder is one with which we seem increasingly familiar.  Entrepreneurs (as I've discussed) imbue their efforts with a powerful narrative - they are clearly the authors of their own lives, and like artists, writers, and other creatives, often seek in their work a measure of self-actualization.

In contrast, seasoned corporate executives - for the purposes of this discussion, those who've climbed through the ranks of large companies - are far less well understood, despite their massive economic footprint. 

In my experience, and as David Brooks has discussed, most successful CEOs of large corporations are surprisingly uninspirational, and distinguish themselves predominately by their strong work ethic, facility for detail, involvement in process, and determination to effect incremental change.

It seems almost counterintuitive, but while highly effective leaders of large corporations have a number of well-developed competencies, genuinely inspiring employees - in the lift-your-soul sense - generally isn't one of them. 

I suspect this reflects two related themes of the corporate world: the emphasis on execution, and the depersonalization of communication.

Emphasis on Execution

Businesses are execution focused, and spend virtually all their time focused on the how, rather than the why - on delivering deliverables, not debating them.

Some years ago, after I had started a new role, a senior executive took me out to lunch, and offered explicit advice: give yourself to the organizational process, he suggested, focus on the very specific tasks at hand.  "You just might be surprised," he said, "how much you'll actually enjoy it."

He was right (to a point): there is something remarkably seductive, even strangely liberating about focusing intently on process, concentrating exclusively on doing a particular project as well as you possibly can, rather than anguishing about why you're doing it in the first place.  There's a real feeling of accomplishment (Csikszentmihalyi might say flow) associated with complete immersion in a task, working intensively - often with a team - on a challenging project in effort to achieve a defined goal.

Not surprisingly, "operating experience" is perhaps the most significant unit of accomplishment in the business world, in that it reflects your time in the trenches, and suggests an ability to function within an organization and ensure that a job gets done.

Depersonalized Communication

As you spend time in large companies, and especially as you ascend the corporate ranks, your communication tends to become progressively depersonalized - and this is by design.  You get coaching on preferred style for emails, project management, meeting management, leadership - and a remarkable amount of the guidance focuses on taking the emotion out of work, and concentrating instead on the objective job to be done.  In order for the system to operate efficiently, each individual component must work well; the most treasured employees tend to be those who earnestly focus on tasks, and bring little overt emotional baggage to interactions. 

It's still not clear to me whether the managers who master this communication style are born or made.  Clearly, there's a significant training aspect, and a good deal of effort within large companies that's focused on cultivating this very specific type of professionalism.  On the other hand, it's also pretty clear that some of the most successful managers are remarkably comfortable with these sorts of stylized interactions, and you get the sense the environment simply facilitates expression of these intrinsic traits, which offer significant selective advantage in the corporate context.

Whether nature or nurture, the point is that when you finally get near the top of the ladder of a big company, you've not only mastered depersonalized communication, but most of your interactions are with either other senior managers or serious investors, and both these groups speak - and generally expect to hear - the same language.  Pouring over numbers and squeezing out efficiencies is the order of the day; expressed emotion would appear painfully out of place, and likely viewed as worrisome. 

Campaign Implications

The most interesting question, of course, is how the two very different rhetorical styles of founder and corporate executives map on to the required skill set for the U.S. President.

While Romney presumably understands that a communication style effective in the corporate boardroom might lack the emotion most voters seek and expect, he runs the risk of exacerbating his authenticity liabilities if he tries uncomfortably to become a fundamentally different sort of person.  My guess is that he probably didn't have to struggle all that much to adjust to the communication style of the corporate world.  However, if he could access and give sincere voice to his genuine emotions, I'd imagine it would be enormously useful to his campaign.

Obama, for his part, must contend with a situation that parallels that of a founder CEO who's trying to hang on to his role, reassuring concerned investors wondering if they should replace him with a more traditional executive.  Perhaps to address these sorts of concerns, the language Obama chose for his acceptance speech seemed to represent a departure from the soaring rhetoric of four years ago, reflecting a communication style closer to the grounded language of seasoned executives, rather than that of a fresh and eager founder.

Perhaps both men are heading from different directions to the same place, moving towards that elusive ideal: the emotionally inspiring, organizationally experienced chief executive admired by employees, consumers, and investors alike.

Howard Schulz, 2016?


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