With today's appointment of Rex Tillerson as head of the US State Department I can't help but wonder if other business leaders have been head of major diplomatic posts such as this or Office of the President? I've heard of Trump so he doesn't need to be named plus his track record won't be known for a while.

If business people have been in high level posts I'd like to study historically if there has been that much difference from your run-of-the-mill lawyer / career politician.

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    Could you describe what makes the lawyer/politician combo different from the business person/politician combo? Many lawyers are in fact business people. – indigochild Feb 3 '17 at 3:58
  • @Brythan secretary-of-state didn't exist so I used head-of-state as place holder as I didn't have 150 points to suggest new tag. Now I do so I've suggested the new tag. Thanks. – WinEunuuchs2Unix Feb 3 '17 at 11:14
  • @indigochild Yes many lawyers are business people but more so in the sense of incorporating their profession for business write-off's and limiting liability. A business leader like Tillerson running a trillion-dollar corporation with 100,000 employees plus stocks and bonds is like a mini-country. – WinEunuuchs2Unix Feb 3 '17 at 11:17
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson#Secretary_of_State seems to fit the bill. Successful farmer/plantator; then SecState, then President. – user4012 Feb 3 '17 at 12:17
  • Would you entertain posting an answer so I can upvote you? – WinEunuuchs2Unix Feb 3 '17 at 13:15

Multiple businessmen have held the presidency, which is a higher officer than the Secretary of State and is ultimately responsible for America's diplomatic actions and relations.

  • Both George Bush and George H.W. Bush were oilmen that were very successful.
  • Jimmy Carter ran a relatively successful peanut farm
  • Harry Truman was active in the mining and oil business (but not very successful).

Beyond that there have been many businessman secretary of states

  • Condoleeza Rice was a senior executive at Chevron and was on the board of directors of several large companies.
  • George Shutlz was a business executive and eventually president for almost 10 years
  • Not exactly the same thing, but Hillary Clinton was heavily involved with the Clinton foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative

And even beyond that, many high offices (that are not directly diplomatic) have been held by business leaders. The obvious ones here are economic ones like the treasury secretary and the fed chair.

  • According to that article, Schultz entered business after holding several high ranking government positions, so he doesn't quite fit here. – indigochild Feb 3 '17 at 4:44
  • @indigochild But he did it before any diplomatic posts. Also there was no requirement in the question that the person couldn't have government posts before. – David says Reinstate Monica Feb 3 '17 at 4:44
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    We cannot forget Hillary Clinton's Cattle Futures Trading venture. Way Way Way more successful than Trump! For Shame! – user4012 Feb 3 '17 at 12:13
  • You have to remove the Clinton reference. It's just completely out of context and wrong. – user9790 Feb 3 '17 at 13:13
  • @KDog why do you think so? – David says Reinstate Monica Feb 3 '17 at 13:14

To answer this question, I read through the wikipedia pages for past Secretaries of State since 1945. I was looking for past Secretaries of State who had long careers in private industry, but no diplomatic or academic (law) experience before hand.

Closest: Kenneth Rush

Since 1945, there truly is no precedent for having a business professional without a background in law or international relations as Secretary of State.

The closest example I could find was Kenneth Rush, who was Secretary of State under Richard Nixon. Prior to entering government service, Rush worked for 30 years in the chemical industry, eventually becoming President of Union Carbide (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical). It's not a perfect example, because before entering private industry he was a law professor at Duke.


Nearly every past Secretary of State had past diplomatic experience with the Department of State. It isn't uncommon for a SoS to have decades of experience with the Department prior to becoming Secretary.

I didn't keep numerical counts, but many (perhaps most) also had relevant academic experience. Many were law professors in the past, and since sometime around the 1970s we started seeing political scientists accept the role.

The third most common background was military. I'm uncertain if military careers are distinct from other civil servants, but there were a handful of SoS who had backgrounds as high level members of other departments (Defense, Labor, etc.).

Why this trend?

I recently purchased a copy of Monitoring Governments, which discusses the history of inspector-generals. Although a bit dated, the book discusses the difficulty in hiring inspector-generals for federal departments.

It would be desirable in many cases (like the IGs) to have business people in federal roles. However, as Light's research showed professionals from the private sector quickly become frustrated with the slow pace of government. Another problem is with the different authority structures and accountability concerns that make governments different from firms. Finally, government priorities sometimes change dramatically very quickly, which is disorienting for some business professionals.

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    "government priorities sometimes change dramatically very quickly, which is disorienting for some business professionals" - um. Did anyone writing that book ever actually work in a business environment? Especially since 2000? – user4012 Feb 3 '17 at 12:14
  • It was published in 1992. So no. – indigochild Feb 3 '17 at 14:08

Past presidents with mostly business experience Andrew Johnson (tailor), Harding (newspaperman), Hoover (mining), Jimmy Carter (farmer), George H.W. Bush (oilman), and George W. Bush (oil, baseball).

I would also consider top diplomats to China like Leonard Woodcock United Autoworkers President and Thomas Gates investment banker prior to going into public service.

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