Can business acumen lead to political prowess? | Sunday Observer

Can business acumen lead to political prowess?

2 August, 2020
Voters elect those fielded by political parties. (File pic)
Voters elect those fielded by political parties. (File pic)

Everyone blames politicians for the state the country is in, but in the absence of an alternative, the voters have elected those fielded by political parties. Law and order, bribery and corruption, human rights, inequality and unfair distribution of wealth, politically biased decision making, policy inconsistency and poor economic performance have been spoken about as being the major issues. 

Given that backdrop, over the past decade, the idea of a business leader (or a popular sports star) turning into a politician and policymaker has been gaining momentum in Sri Lanka. Yet, one wonders whether leading corporations or a sports team results in a great preparation for the world of politics and policy making. Perhaps it only makes the newly minted politician particularly vulnerable to the limits of political life and ventures.

The obvious pitfalls and challenges have been illustrated by a number of business leaders and sports stars who have taken the lead in government. Actual incidents in Sri Lanka over the past decade where leaders either got elected and sought election but could not deliver, serve as a reminder of these challenges – and the difference in leadership between politics and other fields.

Most individuals turned politicians have resulted in total rejection and censure, lack of performance or reluctantly embracing the authentic political culture giving up on their principles and goals to force a change they thought was better for the country. Those drawbacks are repeated in national and local governments as these leaders recast themselves as politicians. 

Business leaders are accustomed to operational efficiencies where disorganisation is handled with brutal proficiency. The checks and balances, accountability and oversight found in government are ingrained into the policy apparatus and can drain the effectiveness and speed of seemingly feasible solutions.

Unlike running a business, a model of leadership based on meeting the interests of a small list of stakeholders, policy leadership involves building a coalition of often competing interests while serving the needs of a large number of constituents at varying levels.


Appealing to every key segment needs alignment which demands a huge compromise on the value system you have embraced and lived by as a business leader. Stars of sports, cinema and other popular fields of art have no experience in handling such diversity, volume and its complexities. 

Understanding the differences in diversity, risk, efficiency, and target audience interests in these areas are the key to understanding the differences in leadership between politics and other disciplines and no one in Sri Lanka so far has encountered these pitfalls successfully to achieve their political goals – that’s the fact though there is still a school of thought that successful business leaders entering politics is the solution to many issues the country is grappling with.

Politics, at its heart, needs building and maintaining a coalition of support among  people you wouldn’t otherwise want to even talk to. Leadership isn’t necessarily replicable from one corporate venue to another and certainly not from one field to the next though the majority doesn’t like to accept this fact.

Being a wildly successful entrepreneur needs not only growing a solid business, but also giving the entire enterprise an aura of something larger than life. They spend years crafting an image of what their business is, and honing their own personal brand. Political decisions need much harder calculations than those entrepreneurs need to do.

The first step towards transforming from a business person to successful political negotiator is to realise your limitations. They would need to come up to speed on what they can and can’t do with the kinds of analysis many business leaders use. Political strategy by nature is very fluid and flexibility is needed to make people happy in the short term which clearly compromises the long term results.

Wealth creation

Given that our country’s future depends on how we can increase wealth and not in a more equitable way to distribute the wealth, creation of wealth is the primary job of a politician in today’s context with acute strategy. Yes, business leaders are good strategists but they need to get into power to do this.

The issue is, you need to do politics to appeal to the majority of voters whose level of education is below par. This is where business leaders have failed and will fail. Business leaders stick to a given plan no matter what others think, but politicians plan their work around what people think. 

In politics, compared to business, there are potentially many more people and issues that can affect how decisions are made and things turn out – most issues you have no control over. In politics, there may also be less sorting by expertise and background. People with a hunger for power can succeed in politics without knowing very much or even knowing how to get the needed knowledge.

They might even disparage others’ knowledge, in deference to their own intuitions. In business, one is more likely to interact with people who are familiar with their domain and who want to know all that they can. While these two propositions may look alike on the surface the reality is that they are completely opposite in thought process and action. That is why some think business leaders can succeed in business is because of that. 

In short, political leaders need to realise their own cognitive capacity because their actions aren’t restricted within their own industry. Ego and image may make up a good chunk of someone’s business manoeuvering, but in politics, the stakes are higher and more stratified.

Brash, unscripted hand waves may catch people’s eyes in the moment, but there’s no way to know what will follow. And political negotiations need a more honed and keen eye to be conducted successfully.

Whether or not the future of politics is drawn from business learning or something entirely different, it’s important for leaders to be reflective and critical. They must be ready to learn as the scope of their decisions and negotiations increase.

The greater the shift in domains, the more difficult that task becomes. Finally, I ask this question – are you happy with the performance of previous business leaders or professionals who entered politics? Did they change the journey of politics or did they turn out to be ‘politicians’ at the end.