Do the Same Skills Apply to a CEO as They Do to the Commander in Chief?

Achieving the leadership status and title of Commander in Chief – President of the United States of America – is the highest leadership position one could achieve.

Sure, being a CEO is also a great achievement and the role is intricate and complex, but leading a group of employees is much different than leading an entire nation.

I mean, they don’t call the President the Commander in Chief (CIC) for nothing!

CEO skills vs. political skills

With an election happening next week, leadership qualities are coming to the forefront. One candidate was a former CEO. So, putting on my organizational development practitioner hat – politics aside, left or right, red or blue — this raises an interesting question:

Just because someone was a CEO does that mean they have the leadership skills to be Commander in Chief (CIC)?

Some may argue that good leadership is good leadership –- whether you’re managing kids at home, serving as the CEO of a company, or as the Commander in Chief of a nation (for more on our take on good leadership, feel free to see some previous articles on the topic including one relating to politics).

Can a CEO run the U.S. equally or better than a candidate with a traditional political background?

Various articles and studies have been done on this topic. The reality is, that, though many leadership roles do require similar traits, they may also require different decision making processes and application of those skills and traits.

Just because you may have certain skills and traits to be a success in one leadership role doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skills and traits to be successful in another. Even if you do, can you execute actions using those skills and traits in a way that will contribute to success in the same way for two different roles?

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Let’s take a look at some key leadership traits, and considerations, from the perspectives of CEO and the Commander in Chief:


  • CEO – CEO’s and the CIC often have a different view on accountability. Though CEOs are hired, they are not often elected to serve the people, but to serve the shareholders. Since CEO’s are mostly accountable to boards and shareholders, decisions can often be driven by money, and not what is in the best interests of those they lead. A CEO is often more accountable for balance sheets than the welfare of their employees. This can often prohibit them from putting the interests of their people ahead of that of finances.
  • CIC – Though the balancing of financial matters and people matters is a shared struggle to an extent, the CIC is elected by all the people, not just appointed by a select group of peers, and thus is accountable first and foremost for the well being of those who elected him/her. One could argue that level of accountability includes commitment to balance sheets, although when looking at financials, the CIC is most often doing so from the perspective of what is best for the people. In addition, the CIC is required to make life and death decisions, not just financial decisions. The CIC is accountable to serve the people who elected him/her, and not shareholders, in financial matters and matters of life and death. Most CEOs are not.


  • CEO – CEO’s don’t often see a need for transparency. They very rarely share personal information, which they may not want to share publicly. The job of a CEO doesn’t require corporate citizenship or social responsibility in leadership. Though more CEOs are making the choice to be socially responsible, it is not a requirement of the job. Besides very specific legal mandates and policies, nothing requires that a CEO be transparent (though those that are not will most likely see a negative impact on performance). The CEO’s leadership often tends to be extremely secretive as CEOs often think personal information is not in the domain of those they lead.
  • CIC – The CIC knows that not even the most intimate moments are off limits. The CIC is required to think through decisions, beyond profit and loss statements, and to consider all available points of view. When communicating his/her decision, the CIC is often required by law to do so in a transparent manner. Of course, politics is politics and scandals are scandals. Not every CIC chooses to be (or can be) transparent about every decision, whether personal or legislative. The expectation of transparency, however, tends to be more prominent from the CIC perspective based on the expectation from constituents. The general public, as often supported by law, can demand much more transparency from the CIC than employees can from a CEO.


  • CEO – Engaging in authentic communication is an imperative trait for any great leader if they wish to have supportive and trusting followers. Though it is important for a CEO to be a tough, no-nonsense, competent negotiator, it is also easy for a CEO to take a “my way or the highway” view. This view will often alienate followers and not engage their support. If someone doesn’t like what the CEO is saying, it’s just too bad. CEOs don’t often invite disagreement. They frequently feel little need to explain or justify their thoughts and decisions, and this view can often negatively impact the engagement of their followers.
  • CIC – Can the CIC also take a “my way or the highway” view to communication and decision making? Sure they can. However, they will often get little accomplished by doing so (particularly re-election). It is often the support of the constituency that helps the CIC drive their agenda through the legislative process. The CIC needs to take a different view on engagement if they intend to govern in the best interest of the people. This view not only includes being a competent negotiator, it also includes a certain level of diplomacy and the ability to engage with those they serve to gather varying opinions and information, and, adjust decisions accordingly. These are skills many CEOs don’t often choose to exercise, as they often see no need to.

“Am I ready to follow their lead?”

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s not possible that leaders of corporations can make good leaders of government and vice versa. And, I’m also not saying that all CEOs and all CICs are the same.

What I am saying is that they tend to look at things a bit differently, therefore, even if sharing the same skill set, they often take different actions motivated by those different views and experiences. It’s less about the debate of having the skills (assuming one does) and more about the ability to apply them in a given situation. Thus, being a good leader at one job is not necessarily synonymous with being a good leader at the other.

Leadership ability is often the deciding factor as to whether something succeeds or doesn’t – in business and in politics.

Whether you’re debating who to vote for or who to work for, take a hard look at their leadership skills as related to their work, and ask yourself – do they have the skills to succeed in this role? Am I ready to follow their lead?

This was originally published on the Tolero Think Tank blog.

Scott Span, MSOD, is CEO & Lead Consultant of Tolero Solutions, an Organization Improvement & Strategy firm. He helps clients in achieving success through people, creating organizations that are more responsive, productive and profitable -- organizations where people enjoy working and customers enjoy doing business. 


1 Comment on “Do the Same Skills Apply to a CEO as They Do to the Commander in Chief?

  1. NOTE: This article is not intended for political debate and does not endorse a specific candidate. It is simply to raise the question of leadership qualities, and if in fact they translate from one position to another, using a real time example of such an instance.

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