If the current presidential-election polls are any indication, the American people are willing to consider someone beyond a career politician in the White House come 2016. With names like Trump, Carson, and Fiorina topping Republicans polls, and outside-the-box politician Bernie Sanders climbing the Democratic ranks, we could have a drastically different election this time around.
Additionally, business leaders with names like Romney, Perot, and Forbes have leaped into the race in prior years. Mitt Romney’s run, of course, took him to the brink of the presidency.
With those thoughts in mind, consider this: Is it time for a CFO to enter the fray?
Some may scoff at the idea, but the parallels to being a superb president and CFO line up in several key facets. When removing political bias from our analysis, we see that several past presidents exhibited traits that might be similar to those of strong CFOs. When examining what the American people look for in a leader, it becomes clear that the right CFO could, in theory, make waves on either side of the aisle in the right race.
A Moral Compass
The American people have reaffirmed in recent years that they desire a shift back to honest, trustworthy leaders with a track record as such. While it would be hard for anyone to meet the bar set by “Honest Abe” Lincoln and his “almost monomaniac” focus on honesty, as described by his wife Mary Todd, Lincoln’s legacy is a benchmark many leaders will continue to hold in high esteem.
The tribulations Lincoln went through during his presidency obviously dwarf any hardship CFOs face on their most difficult days, but a quality financial officer and leader knows that treating each situation and individual with truth and integrity sets an honest tone for the rest of the interaction.
Lincoln did this even with his staunchest opponents, allowing for resolutions to come about even amid bitter rivalries. Lincoln’s honest pragmatism allowed him to cut past political pleasantries and focus on the pressing tasks at hand. As CFOs, we take this approach as well to tackle difficult issues that often have emotions running high. If we remain honest and moral, the task will be completed as such.
An Analytical Mind
Beyond having a high moral compass, high-quality CFOs analyze situations from all angles. With keen analysis, they can create masterful plans that can only come to fruition through excellent foresight. That same kind of foresight couldn’t be better exemplified than as seen in our first president.
When the world expected the American union to fall after gaining its independence, George Washington took an audacious stance for the time. Considered foolish and radical by global counterparts, Washington stood strong in his belief in the United States. Facing a challenge no nation had before, Washington united a diverse group of people without imposing fear of military or royal rule.
In the 21st century, Washington’s 18th-century views still hold largely intact and are growing globally. Like a true visionary leader, Washington stuck by his beliefs and faith in the people to form a union the world had never seen on such a magnitude. CFOs also strive to hold strong to beliefs when they know a dream is attainable. Even during the darkest times, they can keep the team united in the view of a greater future.
Strength in Unity
Like Washington, America’s greatest leaders stood strong on their convictions, even when the republic didn’t always agree. When it came to Lincoln, his cabinet was a who’s who of political rivals for the president. Not only did Lincoln select the three Republican rivals he beat out for the party’s nomination — William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates — he also included Democrat Edwin Stanton. The cabinet would be dubbed the Team of Rivals despite their prowess for progress.
Flash forward about a century to when Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated the power of bipartisanship that led to the United States righting its then-lagging space program. By working across party aisles and with NASA, the program would get back on track and set up the milestones achieved a decade later. While different in circumstances, Lincoln and Eisenhower both display an ability to see past differences for the greater good.
This example is echoed by ideal business leaders, with a CFO often shouldering the heaviest responsibility. By having a view for the future and the greater good, a CFO is often the go-to person in a company to successfully — and fairly — manage these situations.
Comfort Through Effective Communication
Whether in a boardroom or the Oval Office, an ideal leader can communicate with every person, regardless of position or status. While CFOs are adept at addressing boards, investors, and other high-stakes meetings, the president faces off not only with world leaders but with the American people as well.
As an accomplished orator, John F. Kennedy embodied the passion and knowledge it took to galvanize the American people. This was on full display as he urged America to do all it can for its country, as well as inspiring us all to reach for the stars during the Space Race.
When it came to Franklin D. Roosevelt, his fireside chats were as close as the American public could come to having personal interaction with the Commander-in-Chief on a regular basis. Between his 30 chats and inspiring Americans’ belief that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” FDR was an early predecessor for JFK’s ability to inspire and reach audiences.
To genuinely and successfully connect with people, a leader needs compassion for everyone that’s part of the process. Whether it be a business, national, or even global dilemma, ideal leaders care for their people above all else. Growing profits and margins is the end game for a CFO and also, to a large degree, for the president, but those that factor humanity into the process tend to do best.
The efforts of Theodore Roosevelt demonstrate this power. Known for taking on big business on behalf of the common man, Roosevelt earned a reputation as a champion of the people. His “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach exemplified ability to be compassionate while swinging hard for what he believed was right for the country. While those in business may not have always agreed with him, the conviction to fight for your constituents and/or colleagues is a trait that today’s thriving companies often seek in their CFOs.
Decisions at Dire Times
All the aforementioned skills that embody the ideal president and CFO would amount to nothing if they weren’t adept at making tough decisions in crucial moments. From Washington to Lincoln to the modern era, every president has faced hurdles of different varieties.
After lowering taxes to ease burdens on individuals and businesses alike, Ronald Reagan and his administration later had to raise taxes to keep the country on track — a very un-Republican measure. Reagan raise taxes in five of his years as president, though he still eased the burden overall. Regardless of whether he was in step with his party’s pathos, Reagan’s ability to make the tough decisions helped him stand out as an inspiring force in the 1980s.
With compassion, knowledge and the ability to make tough decisions in the most dire of situations, CFOs embody the knack to lead this country under the right circumstances. While this is far from an endorsement or call to action for any CFO to throw his or her hat into the fray, it is a point worth considering in the future.
Depending on the outcome of this race, you never know who could be gearing up for 2020.
Henri Steenkamp is CFO of Saratoga Investment Corp., a provider of financial solutions to middle-market companies. Follow him on Twitter and read his thoughts on his finance blog and South Africa blog.