Five Questions with Hank Paulson

During the recent Forum on Leadership at the Bush Center, former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson participated in a panel discussion titled, “Nationalism and the Future of Global Markets.”  Secretary Paulson sat down with us during his visit to the Bush Center to answer a few questions for this month’s “Five Questions With…”.

Q: Can you tell us about your work at the Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago?

After serving as Treasury Secretary for President Bush, I wanted to do something where I could make a unique contribution – something where I could really harness my commitment to addressing economic growth, sustainability, and environmental best practices in the United States and China. So I established the Paulson Institute, a non-profit that aims to advance sustainable growth and environmental protection in the United States and China. The Paulson Institute is what I like to call a “think and do” tank, that leads projects on the ground in China and produces policy analysis on the most pressing economic challenges facing China today. Our work in China is focused on addressing climate change through clean energy and other sustainability projects, and on advancing environmental conservation. In the United States, we promote bilateral cross-border investment that will help create American jobs. Our Think Tank publishes policy and analytical papers on a wide array of economic challenges facing China, with an emphasis on market based solutions—these include everything from pensions to tax and fiscal reform to corporate governance. 

Q: How have the Chinese responded to your outreach and advice?

I believe they’ve responded very favorably. I’ve worked with many of China’s top leaders for a very long time, starting when I was at Goldman Sachs. Then when I was at Treasury, President Bush asked me to set up the Strategic Economic Dialogue between the United States and China. And over the last six years, as chairman of the Paulson Institute, I continue to travel to China regularly and meet with the leaders to discuss key issues affecting the relationship between our two countries. What I’ve learned over the years is that they look for best practices anywhere in the world and apply them to China. That’s what we try to provide at the Paulson Institute, and in many cases, I think we’ve seen tangible results—for example, through our work on issues like wetlands conservation, China’s national park system, and cross-border investment.

Q: You focus quite a bit on “green finance”. Why is this work so significant?

Today investors and policymakers around the globe, and especially China, are recognizing that green investments are essential for ramping up the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s going to take trillions of dollars to clean up our environment, but government funds can only go so far. The difference in financing, therefore, must come from the private sector. So at the Paulson Institute, we’re working closely with China’s government and financial leaders to move green finance from philanthropy to the mainstream of investing principles.

Q: From your experiences as an Eagle scout, an all-Ivy League football player at Dartmouth, CEO of Goldman Sachs, Secretary of the Treasury, and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, you’ve seen many leadership styles. Which leadership traits are effective across the board?

I’ve found that although good leaders have different personal attributes and leadership characteristics, the very best ones, like President Bush, share some basic qualities. First, they get the right people in the right jobs. They surround themselves with a strong team that complements their skill set, strengths and weaknesses. Second, they are accountable. They don’t dodge the tough problems or pretend they don’t exist. In fact, they go out in search of the most important problems for their organization to work on. Third, they define the job expansively and are prepared to break glass if necessary. When something is critically important, they don’t take no for an answer. Finally, the best leaders care about people. It’s much easier to motivate those who work for you if they know you care about them and take an interest in their career and development as professionals. I was very fortunate to have a boss in President Bush who displayed these very qualities and inspired me to strive to be an ever-better leader myself.

Q: During the financial crisis, you were able to get members of Congress with opposing views than your own to hear you out. How did you do that?

President Bush encouraged me from day one to build relationships with Members on both sides of the aisle. The President put me in a position where I had good opportunity before the financial crisis to work with Democrats and Republicans on a variety of things. My experience at Goldman Sachs taught me how to work with principals and how to give advice; not just give orders. Those ended up being very helpful skills for dealing with Congress. I learned that the only way you get things done is through compromise. And the only way to make it sustainable is through a bipartisan approach.