Leadership Lessons from Our 41st President

Last Wednesday I set aside a few hours to watch the funeral of President George H. W. Bush. My heart filled with pride as I watched our military honor their former Commander in Chief. I laughed out loud as Senator Alan Simpson shared his often funny stories. I cried as a son, also a former President of these United States, honored his dad as “the best father a son or daughter could have.” And I thought about the leadership lessons President Bush exemplified.

This post is not intended to be a political one. It isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. It’s not about the current President, or any others for that matter. This post is about leadership lessons from our 41st President. Perhaps George W. Bush said it best. His father taught him “how to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage, and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country.”

Here are some leadership lessons from our 41st President:

1. Allow the events of your life to shape you.

There is a vast difference between allowing the events of your life to define you and allowing them to shape you. President Bush’s service in World War II shaped him. It brought out the deep humility that he displayed as he asked the question, “Why me? Why was I spared when others died?”

2. Competitiveness and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

Bush was a successful businessman, Congressman, Ambassador, CIA Director, Vice President and President. He could be bold. He could be ruthless in competition. As his biographer Jon Meacham pointed out the president understood, “To serve, he had to succeed. To preside, he had to prevail. Politics, he once admitted, isn’t a pure undertaking; not if you want to win, it’s not.”

But he was also compassionate. He wasn’t afraid to say, “I love you.” And he wasn’t afraid to cry. When he met a Polish boy who was battling the same disease that took his daughter, Robin, the president wrote in his diary, “My eyes flooded with tears. And behind me was a bank of television cameras. And I thought, ‘I can’t turn around. I can’t dissolve because of personal tragedy in the face of the nurses that give of themselves every day.’ So I stood there looking at this little guy, tears running down my cheek, hoping he wouldn’t see. But if he did, hoping he’d feel that I loved him.”

3. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

President Bush often joked about his misuse of language. His family acknowledged that “he wasn’t exactly Fred Astaire on the dance floor.” His friend Alan Simpson said he could never remember the punchline to a joke. His biographer acknowledged, “’Fluency in English,’ President Bush once remarked, ‘is something that I’m often not accused of.’” Here was a man who loved to laugh, even at himself!

4. Never miss an opportunity to honor and help someone else.

Alan Simpson recalled the way that Bush helped him during a difficult time. He recalled saying, “George, I am not unmindful as to what you are doing. You are propping up your old wounded duck pal. While you’re at the top of your game, you reach out to me while I’m tangled in rich controversy and taking my lumps. And he said, ‘Yep. There were staff, Al, who told me not to do this, but, Al, this is about friendship and loyalty.'”

5. Look for the good in others.

As Bush 43 said in his eulogy, “He looked for the good in other people and usually found it.” Years later the world marveled at how the President could develop a special friendship with our nation’s 42nd President, Bill Clinton. Clinton was a Democrat. Clinton defeated Bush. Yet they became what Bush 43 referred to as “brothers from other mothers.”

6. Don’t sacrifice your family on the altar of success.

The Bush family amazes me. George and Barbara Bush did well. They passed on their faith to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They also passed on their encouragement and love. During the eulogy, George W. noted that he and his siblings tried their father’s patience, “but he always responded with the great gift of unconditional love.” And he wasn’t afraid to express it. Indeed, his last words on this earth were apparently said to his son: “I love you, too.”

7. Practice what you preach.

Integrity matters. In one of the famous handwritten letters the President wrote these words to former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano. The letter was shared by Fox News Anchor Bret Baier.

“I cannot single out the one greatest challenge in my life. I have had a lot of challenges and my advice to young people might be as follows

Don’t get down when your life takes a bad turn. Out of adversity comes challenge and often success

Don’t blame others for your setbacks

When things go well, always give credit to others

Don’t talk all the time. Listen to your friends and mentors and learn from them

Don’t brag about yourself. Let others point out your virtues, your strong points.

Give someone else a hand. When a friend is hurting show that friend you care

Nobody likes an overbearing big shot

As you succeed, be kind to people. Thank those who help you along the way

Don’t be afraid to shed a tear when your heart is broken because a friend is hurting.

Say your prayers!!

George Bush”

Final Thoughts

Jon Meacham described George H. W. Bush as “a lion who not only led us, but who loved us.” For those of us who are privileged to lead other people all of these leadership lessons matter. Thank you, Mr. President.