Before Election Day, the presidential candidates will be asked a litany of questions to help us determine their positions on the major issues: Where do you stand on foreign policy; how will you reduce the deficit; who should pay more in taxes and who should pay less? I'll leave it to others to ask these questions. In most cases, the answers will be preprogrammed and predictable.
I'd lean toward a different set of answers from the presidential hopefuls — answers to questions I ask candidates for positions in my own company. I don't claim to have the expertise to be president, and I acknowledge the uniqueness of the challenges facing the country's largest enterprise — one with 330 million customers, an equal number of shareholders, and a staff of more than 4.4 million (that's a lot of birthday cakes in the company kitchen). However, I have run enough successful companies to learn a few things about choosing a successful leader. What I want to know most doesn't have to do with plans and promises. What I want to know is how our presidential candidates think and solve problems.
Here are the four questions I would ask:
1. What's your biggest failure? Of course, presidential candidates must toot their own horns. For my part, I'd prefer the candidates who are willing to talk about their failures. As I've said in an earlier column, I only hire people who admit they have made mistakes and learned from them. When job candidates tell me they have never had a significant failure, I can only assume that they are either not telling the truth or that they haven't taken any calculated risks. Frankly, you learn more from failures than you do from success, but only if you are willing to admit and own up to those failures. I won't hire someone for my company who doesn't acknowledge failure and I would insist on the same from our presidential candidates. Both are men of considerable intelligence, and we know what they've achieved. I want to know how they've failed and what they learned from those experiences.
2. What's the biggest risk you've taken and would you do it again? Calculated risk-taking is hugely important. Think of America's first trip to the moon as one of our riskiest but most successful endeavors. Companies thrive and grow through calculated risks; countries do as well. iTunes was a risk that succeeded, Pets.com, not so much. America's space program: very successful; the decisions that allowed the near collapse of our banking system: a near catastrophe. But in all cases, we learn and we grow as a nation. Whether in business or government, the hallmark of a successful leader is often courage. The question is, which risks are worth taking and how are these decisions made?
3. When have you taken an unpopular position against special interest groups? Everyone knows about powerful interest groups and both parties have them. I want a candidate who can demonstrate that he has taken a position that serves the broader public in the face of adversity. When running a company, a good CEO shouldn't make decisions in response to the loudest guy in the room. Sometimes the loudest guy is right, but more often than not he's just loud.
4. What's the most unconventional thing you've done? In previous columns I have written about the need to embrace unconventional thought. We can all debate whether corporate success translates into effective political leadership, but it's undeniable that the success of most entrepreneurs is connected to the fact that they were innovative and often unconventional. I am convinced that this is an important qualification for solving any nation's problems. So Mr. Governor and Mr. President, what's an example of an unconventional policy or solution you're most proud of?
America faces considerable problems — runaway debt, stagnant growth, rising inequality, insufficient support for small businesses, persistent unemployment, a sinking middle class — nonetheless, we will not only survive, but strive and succeed as we always have before. We can all debate what needs to be done about these challenges, but let us agree that each will require solutions from a bold, unconventional President. The candidate who is willing to take risks, fess up to (and learn from) failures, and follow his own vision is the candidate that will have my vote. What questions would you ask?