Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering a presidential bid, and I think I speak for tens of millions of coffee drinkers when I say: Someone needs to get this man a venti decaf.
Let’s take a beat, Mr. Schultz, and think this through.
You don’t even have to order anything, unless you’re hungry: Everyone in this restaurant has completed the sensitivity module. Nobody is going to call the cops if you just want to sit there (even if you are sounding a little crazy right now).
Before we talk about your political aspirations, though, I’d like to give you the props your entrepreneurial record deserves: Your 27,000-outlet empire is a magnificent achievement, and you’ve leveraged it to do a lot of good in the world.
Plus, you make a swell cup of joe, or at least a consistent one. Politicians who insist they prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee are mostly feigning solidarity with constituents who would sooner buy a gold-plated Prius than plunk down $5 for a nonalcoholic beverage.
And you may even be right in surmising that at least some of the skills that have made you a successful captain of industry would be useful in the Oval Office. Lots of former CEOs have made that transition: There’s Herbert Hoover and Donald Trump, just to name — well, all of them.
So it’s not as if the bar is, you know, super-high.
Apples and parakeets?
But in my 40 years as a journalist covering corporate CEOs and elected leaders, I’m most struck by how different those jobs are, and how rarely the skill set required to excel in the former translates to success in the latter.
It’s not that business people are uniquely unsuited to the cat-herding scutwork of democratic governance; it’s that most people are, including many who have achieved great things in other spheres.
My college friends and acquaintances, for instance, are an usually accomplished lot. Some of them became entrepreneurs as brilliant as you are. Others have distinguished themselves as scientists, lawyers, engineers and artists. Two of them even sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
But I’m not sure I’d choose any of them to be president, for the same reason I’d pick someone else to repair the loose masonry on my front walk. I’d put a premium on finding someone who has repaired sidewalks before, ideally many times, and with a high rate of success.
Practice, practice, practice
That’s what too few people get about politics, Mr. Schultz: It’s a skill, and mostly one the most accomplished politicians have acquired through experience.
Are there exceptions? Of course. A rare few are born leaders who can marshal people and resources to achieve an objective as instinctively as Mozart wrote piano sonatas. But that is not the norm. (Mozart, by the way, would have been a disastrous president.)
I hope you’ve noticed that I haven’t said a word yet about your political values or objectives. That’s not because those don’t matter, any more than flying to Grand Rapids is no different from flying to Madagascar. And from what little I know about your politics, I suspect they’re reasonably compatible with mine.
But before I buy a plane ticket to any destination, I require some assurances that the pilot flying me there knows his way around a cockpit.
That said, Mr. Schultz, there is one skill every accomplished leader I’ve met in any sphere has shares: an ability to identify and exploit smart people who have specialized knowledge the leader lacks. And even without having done a deep dive into your own career, I’m confident that’s a talent you have in spades. You couldn’t have built Starbucks into a global empire without it.
So my advice to you, if you’re interest in channeling your talents for the greater political good, is to exploit that talent: Find a professional politician whose spent his life developing his own expertise as diligently as you’ve spent your life developing yours, and make yourself as useful to him or her as Alexander Hamilton was to George Washington.
If you can’t live with being an actor in a supporting role, then start somewhere you can be more confident of making a difference. Before you leap to the conclusion that what you’ve learned as a corporate CEO makes you qualified to be the leader of the free world, see if it makes you a good school board president, a good mayor, or a good governor.
In the meantime, I’d like a grande Pike Place, with room. Nobody makes those better than your guys.
Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press.