Vision and Values

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.

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The difference between being a leader, and being a great leader, is a particularly debated and important issue of our time. Leaders are often first identified by virtue of their position — by running an organization, overseeing teams of people, and having lofty titles. But being in a leadership position cannot be confused with being a great leader.  

We have all seen the difference between great leaders in action and others that we would consider just average in terms of leadership. What sets them apart? Each of the people interviewed in this section weighs in on this question. A common theme among all of them is that great leaders have a set of values and an optimistic vision for the future.

Great leaders pursue things that are of value and are concerned about something bigger than themselves. General Stanley McChrystal states that “great leadership is also leadership that is good…it pursues things that are of value to people individually and at large.” People need to — and want to — see the “why” behind the vision. They want to know what’s driving a leader towards their goals. 

That’s where positive values come in. Michael Sorrell, who serves as president of Paul Quinn College, had a unique chance to establish the values of vision for the college. When he began at the then-struggling college over a decade ago, he said the institution didn’t really have a set of values or a well-defined mission. He had the chance to define those values and outline a vision for the college, and a sense of something larger than the individual now pervades the culture of Paul Quinn College. Sorrell talks about “WE over me” as the ethos for the college.

Where do these values come from? Values are not something that are developed once a person is in a leadership position. They start early in life and continue to build throughout life’s learnings and experiences. President Bush says his childhood in Midland, Texas, his family, and his religion have been key ingredients in the development of his values. For Michael Sorrell, his values came from his interests he had developed and studied, and he says that “I had a lifetime of ideas sitting on a shelf, waiting for the proper venue to implement them.” Jon Meacham says it well: “When [leaders] come to that point of crisis, they are bringing to bear everything they’ve experienced, everything they’ve read, everything they’ve learned, everything they haven’t learned.”

Several of these interviews outline the importance of optimism as part of a leader’s values and vision. As we face a world that is constantly in transition, with new technologies, methods of communication, and ever-evolving economies, the optimistic vision that our leaders possess becomes more important. Great leaders believe people deserve to flourish, and they believe they can help them achieve that. 

This optimistic vision also aids in building the team of people needed to execute on that vision. A leader who has a clear set of values — and outlines those values and his or her vision — is better able to build a great team around them. Those values and vision give the team a sense of purpose and unity. President Bush understood this as he set the course for his team at the White House. As he said in his interview, “If the culture’s based on larger concepts, then it is much easier to build a team of people who are headed in the same direction.”

Values and vision are also important because great leaders are defined by the unexpected, not the expected. Leaders need to have the right structures and processes in place, and the right goals for the organization. But what really tests their leadership is when the unexpected happens. President Bush discusses facing the unexpected with the surge in Iraq and the financial crisis, which tested his leadership more than policy issues that he campaigned on. During those difficult times, his longstanding values and his optimism were more important than ever. 

In his interview, President Bush talks about how the situation was getting worse on the ground in Iraq in his second term. While Congress had been supportive of the war in Iraq at the start, politics around the war were getting more and more difficult and support was waning. The politically palatable and expedient thing to do might have been to keep with the current strategy or bring troops home, but that risked potential defeat.

Instead, President Bush relied on his vision of “an ally in the war on terrorism and an example of a functioning democracy in the Middle East.” He believed so strongly in the importance of this vision and in being successful that he made the decision to send a surge of forces to Iraq, despite the reluctance he faced from Congress and from the military itself. His core set of beliefs enabled him to make a difficult decision despite the political headwinds, and that decision led to success on the ground as we look back on it after more than 10 years.

That example speaks to the importance of vision and values as underlying elements of great leadership. Vaclav Havel, in a speech delivered almost 25 years ago, spoke of the task of creating a new model of coexistence after the collapse of colonial hegemony and the fall of communism. He said that while many believe this task can be accomplished through the invention of new organizational structures, “such efforts are doomed to failure if they do not grow out of something deeper, out of generally held values.” The leaders interviewed in this series share that belief and help us understand why it matters to them.

Holly Kuzmich is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and senior vice president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

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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