Dec. 10, 2018

Leadership Lessons from George H.W. Bush

What is the foundation for your decisions as a leader? There are any number of decision rules one might follow. Make the quick choice, the cheap choice, the best choice? One worthy approach is to make the choice that has the highest net benefit. But this begs the question of benefits to or for whom or for what. To you as leader, to the organization as a whole, or for the organization’s members as individuals. It’s easy to see how one could go down a very deep rabbit hole trying to sort this out.

A common line of reasoning is to choose what’s best for the people in your organization, or your organization’s customers or clients. But this in turn begs the question of doing what’s best for them as individuals or as a community. Interestingly, it is at this junction that some interesting tensions begin to emerge. As a leader, if our goal is to maximize our time as leader, then there is one path forward and it commonly requires you to make choices that benefit the most people as individuals. This can be the easy choice that also seems easy to defended. Choose what’s best for the most people. It likely also has the additional benefit of making you a popular leader. Unfortunately, this is often exactly not what is in the organization’s or community’s best interests.

In 1988, while running for president, then Vice President Bush pledged, “no new taxes” if he were elected president. It was an easy pledge to make, harder to keep. Two years later the economy was no longer humming along and it was now clear that as president he faced a set of constraints that did not exist two years previously. As president, Bush was required to balance sets of competing interests that in the past were jointly achievable but now were in tension with one another: reduce the deficit or sustain economic growth. Faced with the choice of serving the interests of his own party and close political associates, or doing what was in the country’s broader interests, he chose the latter. In doing so he paid dearly for it. But it was the right thing to do.

Bush chose what he felt was best for the country, not for the narrower interests of any single party or interest group or group of individuals. Ironically, it was the democrat Bill Clinton who used the Bush budget deal to greatest political effect, turning Bush’s decision into a betrayal of trust rather than as a prudent hedge against a modest decline in the economy. Doubly ironic is that the politician who gored Bush with this choice was the one who just a few years later would say under oath about whether he had lied or not, that it depended on “what the meaning of ‘is,’ is.

With the benefit of hindsight and with his passing, GHW Bush leaves us with a powerful lesson about doing the right thing as a leader. Making choices that benefit your whole organization or community at the displeasure of key individuals may hurt you in the short run, but it is the long run that really counts. And this is why, in the long run, so many of those who excoriated Bush years later came to eulogize him and recognize him for what he was, one of America’s greatest leaders ever.