Sunday, November 29, 2015         


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CEO skill set not applicable in government leadership

By David Shapiro


There's been a lot of talk about CEO experience in the races for governor, lieutenant governor and mayor, but that's not what these jobs are really about.

A chief executive in the private sector has one constituency -- stockholders -- and a single overriding objective of profitability.

The CEO can force his or her will on a company, working with a friendly board of directors, labor rules that actually give management the right to manage and freedom to shove aside anybody who doesn't share the vision.

Let's be honest, no company near the size of the state or city would hire any of the leading candidates for governor or mayor -- much less lieutenant governor -- as its CEO.

Government leadership takes a different set of skills.

Governors and mayors serve multiple constituencies with conflicting interests and few shared goals. Instead of friendly directors, they must deal with equally powerful legislators and council members with their own constituencies and priorities. The entrenched bureaucracy has all the work rules in its favor and can be difficult, if not impossible, to move.

Gov. Linda Lingle was our only governor with significant executive experience coming in, having served two terms as Maui mayor. Has she been our best governor?

Similarly, Jeremy Harris was the Honolulu mayor with the most relevant executive experience after serving a long stint as city managing director before ascending to the top job. Was he our best mayor?

The historical consensus would be that the late Gov. John A. Burns was Hawaii's greatest government leader since statehood. He was a former cop and political organizer with no significant executive experience.

He did bring a lot of tangible achievement to the job; he led the 1954 Democratic revolution that fundamentally changed our island society and was credited with winning statehood for Hawaii as a member of Congress.

Burns didn't lead by managerial wonkery, but by having a crystal-clear vision of what he wanted Hawaii to be that he never lost sight of.

He had a knack for getting others to buy into his vision and he formed the right alliances and put the right people in place to make it happen. He was unquestionably The Man, more because of the respect he had earned for himself and showed others than for the power he wielded.

Burns was special, and others like him don't come along very often. In our more complex times, today's leaders don't get as clean a canvas to paint on as he enjoyed.

But the qualities of vision, consensus building, compassionate strength and respect that made Burns so special are a pretty good way of measuring the current crop we have to choose from.

David Shapiro can be reached at or

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