George W. Bush on Vision and Values in Leadership

Listening to Leaders, a new book by the George W. Bush Institute, is a collection of interviews to guide current and future leaders in the essentials of moving an organization, a team, a group, even a nation, towards toward a common purpose. The leaders in the book come from the worlds of business, military, politics, technology, and education. Many also are rising leaders, whose skills will become even more apparent as they lead their respective fields in the future. In this series of interviews and essays, the contributors have a simple focus: the elements of great leadership.

Read more: Holly Kuzmich | President George W. Bush | General Stanley A. McChrystal | Michael Sorrell | Jon Meacham

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In this Listening to Leaders interview, President George W. Bush draws upon his international, national, and state leadership to discuss the importance of vision and values in leading people, organizations, and even nations. Those essentials start well before someone becomes a leader, he says, and they involve listening to people and caring for others.

How do you define great leadership?

I define a great leader as someone who has vision, someone who knows where they want to go, and someone who will be able to define a set of principles that will enable a more successful journey.

A leader is optimistic and believes that the vision and the principles will lead to a better tomorrow. A leader also is someone who understands how to assemble a great team of people to achieve the vision. Someone who can laugh, someone who shares credit and who takes blame.

There is a lot in there about values and vision. Where do leaders get those? Where did they come from in your case?

I think it comes from how you were raised. In my case, it came from where I was raised — in Midland, Texas. And I believe that one learns values through family and religion.

I don’t think leadership can be taught. But I think leadership comes in all different forms and one can gain leadership traits. They can gain the ability to lead through experience.

You mentioned optimism. We know the world can be a challenging place, even dark at times. How do leaders speak about hope and optimism with authenticity in moments like that?

The question is, are you an authentically optimistic person? I believe I am and I believe I am because of my religion. I believe religion, in my case Christianity, provides hope even in the darkest moments. I also was raised by optimistic people. Over time I came to realize how fortunate I was to have been raised by whom I was raised and where I was raised.

Keeping life in perspective is very important to keeping an optimistic view. That means recognizing everybody has problems, and a lot of people have bigger problems than me. And it means recognizing that every country’s got problems, and there are a lot with bigger problems than we have in America

It seems like a lot of leadership is relational. Is knowing how to read people something that somebody can acquire or is that just innate?

To a certain extent, it’s innate. But it’s not so much how to read people, it is how to relate to people, how to listen to people, and how to care about people.

To be a people person, you really have to be interested in somebody, and you have to care about their plight and feelings. That’s a very important part of leadership. A leader understands that other people matter more than he or she does.

Another key trait to leadership is understanding the importance of culture, and that a culture has got to revolve around something other than a person. If a culture is based on a personality, then that culture will fail because all people are infallible. If the culture’s based upon larger concepts, then it is much easier to build a team of people who are headed in the same direction.

How do leaders apply these skills in the international arena where people come from different backgrounds and cultures?

First, you’ve got to understand that there are universal values. One such value is that freedom is a universal thought. In other words, it’s not America’s gift. It is inherent in every soul. That thought was very controversial when I was president, but what would have made it more controversial would have been to equivocate on it

Fortunately, there are historical examples of the universality of freedom, and that freedom leads to peace. Japan and Germany after World War II are examples. The fact that democracies don’t war with each other is another example.

By applying universal thought in a complex international world, you’re able to find common ground. Again, not every leader agreed. But ultimately that’s where the world will head with the proper leadership. 

Secondly, like anything else, spending time with these leaders and getting to know leaders and listening to them is important. An ironic friendship I had was with (then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi. The reason we became friends is because we spent a lot of time talking about our lives and common interests. I listened to his view of the history of Japan and where he wanted to take his nation. If you listen to the person and take time to engage with them, you find common ground.

Historian Ronald White said in an interview for this series that leaders need a good sense of timing so they know what to say in a particular moment. How do you learn that?

A lot of it depends on the people you surround yourself with who will make timing recommendations. One of my miscalculations was the timing of whether or not to spend political capital on Social Security or immigration reform after the 2004 election. As I look back on it, I didn’t do a very good job of listening to advisors and moved ahead with Social Security reform. I regret having done that. In retrospect, my moving ahead cost an opportunity, I think, to reform immigration.

How do you develop the sense of knowing when to act and when not to act?

That becomes pretty clear at times. The political process will tell you when you are able to act or not to act. If you’re riding high, obviously it’s easier to act. But if people are getting tired of you, or people sense that you’re a lame duck, then it’s harder to act. You have to accommodate the moment. 

A presidency, by the way, is defined oftentimes by the unexpected. What was expected was that our troops would be funded during the surge, and even though the Congress was against it, we never lost the vote. What was unexpected was the financial meltdown, so the timing of decisions was immediate. We didn’t have any choice. Sometimes you have choices, sometimes you don’t have choices.

You mentioned the surge. Do big decisions like that sometimes have to be visceral in nature? 

That was visceral.

How did you know in your gut that was the right thing to do?

A handful of advisors kept reminding me that things were getting worse, not better. So I said, "Okay, give me options." They presented an option that gave us the best chance of achieving our objective, which was an ally in the war on terrorism and an example of a functioning democracy in the Middle East. There was only one option that enabled us to achieve the goal. 

The visceral nature of the decision was that I refused to abandon a battlefield and those who sacrificed on the battlefield because of the politics that were difficult. The goal was not saving my political skin. The goal was achieving an objective, and, thankfully, it worked.

You were kind of making a call about the surge where you were out there on your own… 

I wasn’t on my own, though. There was a group of insurgents inside the White House, like [then-National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley. And [then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen.] Pete Pace had to sell it to reluctant generals. Of course, we had to make a leadership change in order to make it a credible change. [Then-Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates was all on board. 

But there was a lot of reluctance, particularly in the Congress. This is an example where I believed so strongly in the mission and I knew how important it was that I was going to do what it took to win. We made a wise selection in [Gen. David] Petraeus. He had credibility in the Congress, and he could handle it. Gates was the new secretary of defense, and instinctively we wanted to give the secretary of defense some leeway. 

Yeah, it was a tough slog. But we forged ahead.

What is the importance of asking the right questions of your team, and how do you know what to ask? 

Really important. A leader’s got to be able to see the crux of an issue, distill it, and then direct minds toward the solution.

 I don’t know where you learn that. It’s just from experience and understanding the core of an issue. It’s basically to simplify goals. I used to say, there’s so many goals in education, there are no goals. You have to have a few things and focus on them.

A key to success in any organization is to lay out goals that everybody can understand and what we’re going to do to achieve them

What would you say to prospective or current leaders about knowing which decisions to involve yourself in?

In a complex environment, the president has to insist that all big decisions come to his desk, because you don’t want to be surprised. But micromanaging a complex organization is a bad leadership trait.

As president and governor, how much opportunity did you get to look toward the future versus being consumed with the moment?

It is really important to look to the future and to anticipate pending problems. Some of them are obvious. It’s a balance that I thought was pretty easy to achieve. You need to look long-term and be optimistic

Take Social Security. That is an easy problem to see and a hard problem to fix. I thought it was important to explain to the American people that this system is not working.

One runs because one sees the long-term problems and tries to lay a foundation so that they become less of a problem.

Is there a way to build that into a leader’s daily schedule so they can keep looking over the horizon?

No, but you’re there for a reason. The question is, why are you the leader? Are you there for self-aggrandizement, or are you there to promote a better tomorrow? It depends on the motivations. I would hope most leaders want to solve problems. 

Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield from Listening to Leaders: Values, Empathy, Humility, and Relationships, edited by William McKenzie (copyright 2019). 

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