The Importance of Hope, Vision, and Growth 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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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham shares his insights in this Listening to Leaders interview on how leaders develop a vision and then translate it into an agenda. The biographer of such presidents as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George H.W. Bush also discusses the importance of leaders offering hope for a better day, learning from their defeats, knowing how to work with those whom they differ, and being able to learn and grow.

How do you define great leadership? 

The capacity of an individual who can bend reality to his or her purposes for the good. Transformational leadership is essentially a human undertaking. There are perils and promises, and it's always contingent. But, in the end, great leaders leave the nation and the world in a stronger, more enduring, and more charitable place than when they began.  

How have the presidents and leaders you’ve studied developed their vision? What animated it?

Character is destiny, as the Greeks taught us. They were, as Tennyson put it when he wrote Ulysses, part of all that they’ve met. When they 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. 

 I do believe leaders bring all of their experiences to bear in different moments that could go either way. And I use the word "crisis" advisedly in the Greek sense, as a moment of decision.

All of that vision starts way before the moment?

Totally. 

You have written: “History tells us that presidents who focus on our hopes rather than our fears, who talk about growth not stasis, who open doors instead of building walls are the ones who we look back on most fondly and leave significant legacies.” Talking again about vision, where have those presidents gotten their vision? 

For all his faults, Thomas Jefferson understood that the story of the age was the shift in authority from hereditary and ecclesiastical establishments to individual determination. Andrew Jackson, for all his faults, believed in individual agency. He believed in the democratic possibilities of the country because he had benefited from them. He had risen from the lowest ranks of white society to the pinnacle of power and wanted to ensure that that path was open to others. His definition of “others” was terribly limited, but we are in a constitutional experiment and a journey toward a more perfect union, not a perfect one. 

George Herbert Walker Bush understood that he was fortunate to have been born in this country, to the family and the place where he began his life, and he wanted to encourage the virtues that had made his world so congenial. He understood as well that absolutes were largely to be avoided. He was a man of moderate temperament and believed that politics at their best were temperamentally moderate as well. 

Leaders in any field obviously need a set of values. To what extent should those values be timeless? To what extent should they reflect the age? 

The enduring values are universal. The rub is how far do we apply those? 

My view of every great American leader and every great chapter of American life is that we are best judged on the extent to which we more broadly interpret the Jeffersonian assertion of human equality. The eras we emulate and commemorate are not the eras where we have constricted our understanding of who belongs in the country, but when we’ve widened it. 

That’s not a partisan point – it’s a historical one. I think that is the animating American value. Each of the leaders I mentioned, for all their flaws and all the things they got wrong, were essentially devoted to continuing the journey toward a more perfect union. 

Hope seems to figure prominently in your writings about leaders. How do they convey hope without sounding hollow, especially in times of darkness or crisis? 

There are two competing human impulses. One is the fear of losing what we love and the other is the hope for a better day. They're far more closely linked than we might think.

It's the job of a leader to emphasize that hope is in fact the antidote to fear. It’s not simply an emotion; it’s not simply a passing thing. It is an animating value.

If you don’t have hope, most of the democratic experiment is to fall apart, because why do we pay taxes, why do we invest, why do we educate, why do we try to help those less fortunate than ourselves? We do so not just because of a charitable impulse, but because we hope that the country will rise; that our interest will be protected if we plan for tomorrow and don’t simply worship yesterday. 

There’s an existential element about hope. Why delay one’s own gratifications, why save money, why invest in the future if you don’t hope that tomorrow can be better than today? 

That's a wonderfully American way of looking at it.

How has defeat made some of the leaders you’ve written about better leaders? 

Almost everybody who has ultimately gone on to great national leadership has had some kind of early defeat or mid-life turning point. FDR had polio. Jefferson lost his wife. Ronald Reagan lost the presidency twice before he won it, and he had a very rough personal and professional life when he was about 40. It was very hard to find jobs, his marriage was falling apart, and he really had to find himself. 

Bill Clinton lost the governorship after one term and had been beaten in a House race. George W. Bush losing (a Texas congressional race) in 1978 was hugely important; it taught him how to campaign. And George H. W. Bush lost Senate races in 1964 and 1970 and a presidential race in 1980.

The other great example is Winston Churchill, who lost almost everything until he was 65, and then got one thing right. Defeat is a painful yet necessary classroom for leaders who go on to larger stages. 

You’ve said that presidents have to build their support and not just live off existing support. To what extent must they pay attention to public opinion, even court it?

It’s vital. This is FDR’s great line about if you get too far out ahead of the people and turn around, you’ll find that no one is there. This is the perennial balancing act of leaders. To what extent do you give the people what they want, and to what extent do you try to tell them what they want and teach them what they want?  

We tend to remember the presidents who reach beyond their base of support. That doesn’t mean they reach into totally unformed realms of public opinion. Take, for instance, President Truman on civil rights and President Johnson on civil rights. They were border state and southern state senators, and it would not have been surprising if they had sided with that part of the party. In fact, they reached out to the northeastern liberals at that point in the Democratic Party.  

Ronald Reagan, the great cold warrior, terrified the right wing. They thought they had invested so many years in this guy and then he seemed to be falling in love with Mikhail Gorbachev. He was right, but he reached beyond the people that brought him to the party.  

I think George W. Bush would tell you that he wishes he had succeeded in that process on immigration.  

It's less about forming public opinion and more about uniting the inevitable factions in the country. We should not overly sentimentalize the past and pretend that all these leaders had this 80 percent country. They didn’t. FDR had to fight for Social Security. Ronald Reagan did, in fact, think that Medicare was socialized medicine. 

Things we look back on as these Mount Everest of consensus were almost never Mount Everest of consensus to the guys who were first climbing them. 

How, then, do leaders reach those with whom they might disagree? Do they first have to have enough trust with their own supporters to be able to reach out? Or do they have to have enough risk-taking in them to reach out?

You've got to be firm and at least confident enough that your core supporters, even if they’re not with you on this particular thing, aren’t going to throw you overboard entirely. And you have to have the courage to realize that sometimes you govern, not for the next five minutes or five weeks or even five years, but for the next five decades. 

Part of the calculus of building coalitions where you are disappointing or irritating your supporters and trying to enlist people who are skeptical of you is the oil portrait test. Which is, what do you want us to think about you when we look at your oil portrait?

When you look at Harry Truman now, when you look at Lyndon Johnson now, when you look at Ronald Reagan now, you tend to remember things about them that were not about their base, but how they challenged their base. Reagan and the Soviets. Johnson and civil rights. Truman and integrating the military. Lincoln in his first inaugural saying that slave owners had nothing to fear from him where it existed. But by the fall of 1862 and early 1863, he reached beyond that. 

One of the great characteristics of leadership is the capacity to learn and grow while in power and on the job. There’s very little harder than that because of the demands of command, but Abraham Lincoln learned and changed. John Kennedy learned and changed. 

We have to try as citizens to create enough space and oxygen for the people in charge of our affairs to actually think about things and not kill them just because they changed their minds. 

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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