Leadership Lessons from President George H. W. Bush

3 Dec , 2018  

On November 30, 2018, we lost President George Herbert Walker Bush. He offers us so many leadership lessons, and quite many of those are not celebrated or introduced with braggadocio. That was not his style.

In the election of 1992, I recall the excitement of Ross Perot. He was in; he was out, he was in again, but never fully in. He challenged a sitting president on fiscal math and economics. He even made a campaign speech at my university, the University of South Florida, in Tampa. It all made me wonder and ask how the candidates had even gotten to their places in life. Indeed, a lot of America was taken by Ross Perot and ultimately Bill Clinton in that election. As part of that election, I decided to examine the path of each candidate. I left impressed that President Bush often took the harder and more enduring path in life. The less comfortable path was often not popular but ultimately proved right. I felt it offered a lens into a man dedicated more to service than to status. In this, there are some amazing leadership lessons.


1. Easy is not often best: President Bush volunteered for the Navy when he was just 18. He surely could have taken an easier path than flying over the Pacific and getting shot down. His father’s status and his own grades would surely have allowed him an easier start in life, even if at least an appointment to a military academy. He decided to help when easier paths were in front of him. Most impressive! When I meet our military veterans at Kellogg, I always thank them for their service. I do because I realize that doing what President Bush did and what they do is not easy. It means putting others ahead of you.

Lesson: The easy way out is often too convenient. It focuses on short-term versus the long-term. It is a patch over a systematic fix. It placates the parties involved instead of addressing the underlying issues. Leaders must take the right path, even and especially when it is not easy. The temptation of easy over best will always challenge you as a leader.


2. Disagreeing does not mean being disagreeable: George had many reasons to be upset at the Congress, the growing deficit, and even the recession that surely shortchanged him of a second term. He did not let this make him disagreeable. He did not call for a shutdown of government. He worked with his political adversaries and crafted a solution that he thought best, even if he harmed him politically. It is hard to imagine anyone doing that today. Instead, we have shutdowns and sit-ins.

Lesson: It is too easy to be disagreeable in our world. Michelle Obama announced that she “would never forgive Trump.” Such lines surely sell books and paint a picture of passion and enthusiasm, but they are not helpful in being a leader. Never is a hard word to take back. Forgiveness is the ultimate gift. Forgiving is part of not being disagreeable. We are all human and finding a way to work together is important. Leaders craft those solutions. Leaders must guide organizations and people through the maze. Be willing to forgive. Be willing to accept people change and that you can help. It is hard, but only possible when you agree not to be disagreeable.


3. Respect for others: George is remembered for forming a united coalition to liberate Kuwait. It was the first such international undertaking since World War II. He could have muscled forward and done it alone, but having others involved meant respecting them. Helping the new democracies of the former Soviet empire, also required respecting others. It is easy for leaders to leverage their status and forget that they must also give respect.

Lesson: All too often, I have seen leaders just use their authority to push through a mandate. It is often with little or no concern for the people it impacts. Respecting others requires reaching out to them, listening to them, and including them. It is important, especially when you ultimately expect them to listen to you and follow you.


4. Leaders help the helpless: He championed the American Disability Act, the Clean Air Act, and helped the people of Germany, Poland, Kuwait, and Panama rid themselves of tyrants. He had the courage to challenge China after Tienanmen Square and the wisdom to offer Gorbachev a diplomatic ending to the Cold War.

Lesson: Leaders are in positions to help those that most need help. In his presidency and after it, President Bush worked to help people in need. Leaders should make a place for those that most need assistance and insure that their authority and actions do good to those that most need it. In companies, the people most in need are often your employees. Examine how you can help them. Think about the people you pay the least. What can you do to improve their lives? Help those that need your help.


5. Grace and civility for all and humility for self: President Bush will be forever remembered for his touching letter, left for the incoming President Bill Clinton and uncharacteristic friendship that the two developed in their later lives. To befriend your rival, enemy, or competition, requires a humility for one’s self and a grace and civility to overcome the natural human emotions of resentment, hatred, and envy.

Lesson: We see it everyday in politics and business and life. Parents attack each other over youth sporing events; leaders at Facebook retaliate against people that criticize them, and our current political scene shows politicians that will not concede races, and challenge the very fabric of our country. Show grace an civility in your actions. Be humble. Step quietly and be decent to those around you. It is easier said than done.

I think President Jimmy Carter said it best, President Bush’s “…administration was marked by grace, civility, and social conscience. Through his Points of Light initiative and other projects, he espoused a uniquely American volunteer spirit, fostering bipartisan support for citizen service and inspiring millions to embrace community volunteerism as a cherished responsibility.”

Let’s hope we can all be little more like President George Herbert Walker Bush.



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By  -      
Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and big data. He has done novel research in data monetization and digital disruption and advises leading firms on these topics. As Director of Experiential Learning in Analytics and Associate Teaching Professor of Marketing and International Business at the Foster School of Business, at the University of Washington, Dr. Walker is an academic thought-leader on analytics. Russell Walker has developed and taught leading executive programs on Big Data and Analytics, Strategic Data-Driven Marketing, Enterprise Risk, Operational Risk, and Global Leadership. Previous to moving to Seattle and the Foster School, Dr. Walker was Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, where he founded and taught many popular courses in analytics and risk management. His is the author of the book From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics (Oxford University Press, 2015) which examines data monetization strategies and the development of data-centric business models in the new digital economy. He is also the author of the award-winning text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management as a competitive advantage. Dr. Walker consults with firms on the topics of Big Data and Analytics, Data Monetization, Risk Management, and Business Strategy. Russell Walker can be reached at: russell@walkerbernardo.com @RussWalker1776 russellwalkerphd.com

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