The title of today’s blog is a take-off on Michael Gerber’s classic book The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It (Harper Collins, 1995). During my days at the Ewing Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, I had the pleasure of being the host of a one-on-one conversation with Michael in the style of Inside the Actor’s Studio. Each time Donald Trump fires a cabinet secretary or senior member of the White House staff, my thoughts often turn to the lessons from Gerber’s book and the insights he shared during our interview.
Now, no one is going to argue the United States government is a small business, but I would contend every new presidential administration can be viewed as a start-up and faces the same challenges and risks associated with any entrepreneurial venture. Especially if you’re going to claim you are going to “break the mold” as the current occupant of the Oval Office promised. Therefore, the dysfunction in the current White House can best be explained by demonstrating how Trump has violated several of the pillars which are the cornerstones of Gerber’s analysis and prescription for success. Thus, Gerber’s “E-Myth” becomes Trump’s “T-Myth.”
Let’s start with Gerber’s basic premise. Being proficient in a technical profession and running a business based on that technical competence requires two entirely different skill sets. In his book, Gerber using the example of a woman who is urged by her friends to start a bakery because her pies, cakes and cookies surpass any available at retail outlets in her town. She quickly learns running a bakery has little to do with baking. Thus the “E-Myth,” proficiency in a technical skill makes you immediately qualified to run an entrepreneurial venture marketing that product or service.
Obviously, Donald Trump has not read Gerber’s book. Otherwise, he would not have nominated his personal physician Dr. Ronny Jackson to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Trump always does thing bigger and better than anyone else. Which brings us to the T-Myth. In Trump’s book, you don’t even have to be technically competent. Ben Carson has no identifiable skill related to either housing or urban affairs. [COMIC INTERLUDE: Stephen Colbert explained Carson’s nomination this way. “Carson is ‘urban,’ he lives in a house and Trump has affairs.”] Rick Perry did not even know what the Department of Energy does. Scott Pruitt does not understand the science of ecology. Betsy DeVos has no experience in the field of education unless you equate political fundraising with PTA bake sales.
Trump also fits this mold. He too lacks competence in almost every one of the technical skills required of a chief executive of the federal government. A president needs to be a consensus builder. NOT! A president needs to clearly articulate consistent policy. NOT! A president needs to be a team builder. NOT! A president needs to know how to differentiate fact from fiction. DEFINITELY NOT! A president needs to be a student of history. NOT! A president needs to appreciate the power of his office to influence people and events. NOT!
To fully understand the difference between the “E-Myth” and the “T-Myth,” one also has to compare other major tenets of Gerber’s formula for success with Trump’s modus operandi. One example. “Build a system of systems, so your business does not rely on people.” In other words, the key to running an organization is not to do all the work yourself, but to create systems that run smoothly in your absence. In Gerber’s own words:
If your business depends on you, you don’t own a business–you have a job. And it’s the worst job in the world because you’re working for a lunatic!
In Trump’s case, quo erat demonstrandum.
Another major tenet of the “E-Myth” is, “Think ahead.” Never put yourself in a situation where you are forced to make a snap decision which may put you in a situation you cannot get out of. Stuff happens. A new hire does not work out. There are going to be dissatisfied customers. Your major supplier in Puerto Rico is five feet under water (literally). Do not wing it. Know what you’re going to do before you do it. Need I remind you how the “T-Myth” advocates just the opposite and the resulting number of personal, financial and political headaches Trump faces for his impulsive behavior.
If I were conducting my interview with Michael Gerber today, this is the question I would close with. “Michael, the Trump presidency, including the transition, seems to affirm your theories and principles about why businesses fail, but how do you explain the success of the Trump Organization?” This is how I believe Michael would respond. He would argue there is a major difference between success and the illusion of success. A business with multiple bankruptcies, does not pay its bills, is constantly in litigation and could have more liabilities than assets is hardly a success. For all we know, the only thing Trump is good at is spending other people’s money to maintain a lifestyle and reputation he has not earned.
Maybe it is time to stop talking about the “job” of president and focus our attention on the “business” of being president. A good place to start? Use Michael Gerber’s book as the primer.
For what it’s worth.