America Doesn’t Need an Outsider for President


Extreme market volatility is characterized by wild swings to the upside and downside. One day stocks are a sea of green, the next day everyone’s seeing red. We saw that sort of directionless volatility during the financial crisis of 2008 … just before the S&P 500 (NYSE:SPY) dropped nearly 40% that year.

People are the same way. When our faith is shaken, our lives lack direction and we’re feeling insecure about our future, it shows in our daily mood swings.

There are similar ways to detect the mood of a nation, but they’re nowhere near as volatile for two reasons: crowds of hundreds of millions of people don’t react as quickly as individuals do, and there is no daily metric for that sort of thing.

Nevertheless, you can tell when people lack direction and are unsure of their collective future by the extreme pendulum swings of their cultural norms and political landscape over time. Our ideology is growing ever more radical and divided as the prevailing political winds whipsaw from one extreme to the other.

Enormous chasms are apparent in every controversial issue of the day: from political correctness to freedom of speech, from education to immigration, from taxation to regulation, from entitlement spending to healthcare reform, from Russian aggression to Islamic terrorism.

A divided culture is a directionless culture and a leaderless culture. And we wonder why Washington is in a constant state of gridlock and nothing gets done. Why politicians are more and more extreme, digging in their heels, circling the wagons and pandering to their base than ever before.

I’ve seen this sort of thing many times in the corporate world: companies divided over warring factions, forever deadlocked in a constant state of paralysis. It always ends in one of two ways. Usually, it ends in disaster, but occasionally the board finds a CEO who can shatter the status quo, transform the culture and lead the company in a bold new direction.

While we appear to be heading toward the former outcome, those who recognize the signs of a leaderless culture are fighting for the latter. That is, one would think, the only way we’re going to find our way out of this partisan wilderness to lasting prosperity. That, I believe, is what’s behind the rise of the political outsider.

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina couldn’t have more diverse backgrounds and brands. Trump is a caustic real estate mogul who speaks his mind. Dr. Carson weaves his words as precisely as he wields a surgical knife. And Fiorina is a rock star CEO who was once among the most powerful women on earth running Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ).

But they all have one thing in common: Serious leadership chops.

Perhaps the 2016 presidential election – at least the GOP side of the equation – should not be about policy and platform but about leadership capability. Granted, CEOs must have compelling vision, but in the end, it’s all about inspiring and motivating people to execute on the strategy and get things done.

The naysayers say what do Trump, Carson and Fiorina know about politics?

Indeed, what did an American Express (NYSE:AXP) and RJR Nabisco executive know about big iron, computer hardware, information technology? Nada. But then, Lou Gerstner led perhaps the most gut-wrenching transition of an American corporation and one of the greatest turnarounds in U.S. history at IBM (NYSE:IBM)

Likewise, what did Steve Jobs know about animated feature films when he backed and cofounded Pixar? What did he know about the music industry when he envisioned the iPod and iTunes? And what did he know about cell phones that led Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) to develop perhaps the most valuable single product in world history, the iPhone?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. What did a junior senator from Illinois know about running the world’s most powerful nation when he moved into the White House nearly seven years ago? Not a whole lot. But it was time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, and so it did. And where did that get us?

Clearly it’s time for the political pendulum to stop swinging. And we’re certainly long overdue for a strong leader to unite us behind a common goal: prosperity.

While there’s an argument to be made for a political outsider to do that, isn’t that just the political pendulum swinging once again, except in an orthogonal direction? And how is that different than the ineffective pendulum swings of the past? Actually, it’s not. There’s no difference whatsoever.

The rise of the GOP outsider is an overreaction, just like every other backlash against what failed in the past. The problem is that we don’t know if there’s a Gerstner or a Jobs among the three under consideration. So what makes Trump, Carson or Fiorina better suited to turn around America than say Bush, Christie or Kasich?

At this point, I haven’t seen enough of the candidates to know the answer to that question. And I doubt if anyone else has, either. One thing’s for certain. Being an outsider or an insider, for that matter, won’t necessarily make any individual better suited to lead America forward.