Many today are asking the question of whether or not wealthy businessmen and women can make good politicians, and whether success running a business translates to success in politics.

History is full of examples of successful entrepreneurs turned politicians with various degrees of success; after all proponents argue who is better than a business owner to be a visionary, a strategist and goal driven?  Others believe that success in the market is not an automatic qualifier for public service because it is a far different undertaking with different purposes and different values. They argue that talent for developing private companies and making big profits seldom translates into wooing voters or governing in difficult times.

Politics on crossword

There is insufficient evidence for me to conclusively provide a solid position in this argument, but rather highlight some similarities and point out the contrasting values that are required on both sides.

The leadership qualities required in business and politics are nearly identical. After all, integrity, sincerity, courage, charisma, analytical skills, communication are not exclusive. Nevertheless, this is a question of values and principles embedded in each of these 2 types since probably early years and many are intrinsic to them and hard to change.

Values that lead businessmen to succeed in life are very different than those necessary in politics. A businessman can choose the field of battle based on his expertise, access to capital and market conditions. A politician has no choice but to deal with his constituents issues and their needs, which may differ from his, given the values and socioeconomic status that may separate them. A businessman can choose his employees, those who resemble him and share his ideals. No such luck for a politician. A politician’s stakeholders are neither customers nor employees; they are followers of their own free will, convinced of the values and the vision, the commitment and determination of the candidate.  A businessman is driven by profits and shareholder value. A politician’s values come from his belief that he can help people, improve their lives, keep services and the administration running, even in the absence of money.

The real question to ask in my opinion is why do some businessmen, after many successes in the private sector, venture into a very difficult public life, very much unlike what they are accustomed to, and requiring very different sets of skills.

Aside from the obvious answer of ego, one would have to wonder if these businessmen are running for office to gain access to seats of power and influence public policies. The danger in all of this is the weakness of institutions that hold politicians accountable to voters for not delivering on campaign promises.

When institutions that hold elected officials accountable to voters are strong—as is often the case in mature democracies—then the ability of businessmen to influence public policy is limited, and there is little incentive for businessmen to run for public office. In contrast, when these institutions are weak—as is typically the case in immature democracies like Tunisia—then there are gains to be made from holding public office, and businessmen may run for office to capture those gains for themselves or the parties they represent.

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