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The Bush Institute Talks Elements of Leadership with Al From

Article by George W. Bush Presidential Center November 4, 2014 //   10 minute read

Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, has been a key part of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program that the presidential centers of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson have established.  In this interview, From, author of New Democrats and the Return to Power, discusses the role of vision, collaboration, and patience in effective leadership.

What would you say to a young person interested in leadership about the role of vision? How do leaders get it? And how do they keep their vision fresh?

Vision is the ability to articulate a goal, to explain what that goal is in understandable terms, and to paint a picture or shape a narrative for achieving it.  Vision is an essential part – perhaps, the essential part – of leadership.  That’s because in order to get people to follow, a leader needs to be able to explain what he or she wants to achieve and how to get there.  It’s hard to get people to follow someone who doesn’t know or can’t explain where he or she wants to go.

All three components of a vision are critical to effective leadership.  Setting a goal is important so that people know where the leader wants to achieve.  Explaining that goal in understandable terms is important because to get people to buy into that goal, they need to know why that goal is important and what it means to them.  And, finally, laying out a roadmap for achieving that goal helps fill out the vision by telling people what steps need to be taken and what they need to do to achieve the goal.

The articulation and explanation of the goal are most vital.  Once people agree on the goal, a major battle is won.  Even if they disagree on elements of the roadmap, those disagreements become arguing over details about how to achieve the agreed upon goal – the potential for compromise on the means is always there.  If they don’t agree on the goal first, disputes over details are likely to become debilitating.

That’s why a president who articulates a vision of where he or she wants to take the country on an issue is more likely to be successful than a president who simply offers a proposal without articulating a vision or a set of overall goals.

In the first case, if the president gets people to buy into his vision, even if they disagree with the details of his proposal, they can debate the best way to achieve the agreed-upon goals.  More often than not, compromise on details can be achieved.  But if the president simply offers a proposal without explaining how it fits into to a larger vision or leads to greater ends, the fights of details often will become all-consuming and the result is likely to be stalemate.

When people agree on where they want to go, the chances of getting there are much better than when they don’t.  That’s why vision is so important.

Where do leaders get their vision?

Some leaders instinctively have the ability of articulate a vision.  I think vision comes from having a sense of purpose.  Knowing his purpose – what he wants to achieve – helps a leader set his goals.  And I believe the most effective leaders have the ability to make complicated things understandable to ordinary people.

For example, President Clinton, with whom I worked, and President Reagan seemed to have an almost innate ability to explain complicated issues in simple, understandable terms.  That served both of them well.

But the bottom line is:  leaders get their vision from knowing where they want to go.

How do leaders keep their vision fresh?

Leaders keep their vision fresh by constantly adapting it to new conditions and changing circumstances.

One of my favorite speeches was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco during the 1932 presidential campaign.  In it, Roosevelt talked about the relationship between government and business throughout the history of our country.  My favorite line in that speech was when he said:  “New conditions impose new requirements of government and those who conduct government.”

Both institutions and leaders need to adapt to constantly changing circumstances.   A leader keeps his vision fresh by modernizing it to accommodate changing conditions and circumstances.

What would you say to prospective leaders about building coalitions? How do leaders get people of different minds to hear them?

A leader’s clear articulation of his vision is essential to forging a coalition – particularly a coalition of people with different mindsets.  The key is getting agreement on the big goals – the first component of any vision. 

Once people agree on what they want to achieve, they have every incentive to work together with people, even those with differing opinions, to try to achieve their goals.  You have to get agreement on the big issues and goals. People with different points of view may start in different places, but if they want to get to the same goal, they can probably find a way to do it.

How do coalitions get built in a big, diverse country like ours?

The answer to this question is really the same as the answer to the last one.

Presidents can build diverse coalitions by getting people of different points of view to agree on overall goals and why all of them have a stake in achieving those goals.  I always say that is why it is so important for presidents to think big – articulating big goals that people of differing beliefs can buy into – rather than thinking small and focusing on the details of a particular proposal.

It’s not that details are unimportant, but if you have a big goal, there are often several ways to get there.  Often what seem like insurmountable differences can be resolved in pursuit of the larger goal.

President Clinton in his campaign pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” Many in his (and my) party were against that proposal.  Many in the Republican Party didn’t want to support his plan.  But in the end, he laid out a vision that promised to turn welfare into a work program.  And over a period of time, we were able to convince enough people on both sides of the aisle that there were ways that they could support that would achieve that end.  The result was a welfare reform plan that got the votes to pass and wound up moving millions of people from welfare to work.

President George W. Bush put together a coalition that included Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Republicans to pass an important education reform bill called “No Child Left Behind.”  He did it by articulating a vision that talked about ending “the silent bigotry of low expectations.”  Eventually, there was bipartisan agreement on the details of the bill.

How important is timing in leadership? And how do leaders know when the time is right for an issue?

Timing is critical and leaders have the quality of knowing when the time is right for an issue. They have a sense of timing for when people are receptive to an idea.

Sometimes you have to build support for an idea and then lay low. Then, something will happen and the timing is right. Then you jump.

No Child is a good example.  (Democratic  Sen.)  Joe Lieberman had a bill in 1999 that included many elements of No Child Left Behind. It got 13 votes. President Bush came in in 2001 and the timing was right. He was able to forge a broad bipartisan coalition that could not be formed two years earlier.

Let me flip this around: What is the role of impatience in leadership, whether in politics, business or some other pursuit. Leaders know they have only a limited time in which to produce change, whether in Washington, a state or a school district.

Patience is very important.

You can watch a football game and watch a great running back like DeMarco Murray of the Dallas Cowboys. He has the patience to wait for his blockers. A running back that can’t do that will not do as well.

The same is true with an idea and producing change. Sometimes you have to prepare the country. You can’t just produce change out-of-the-box. You have to build a foundation and persuade people to come along.

Patience and timing are really important. It’s hard to sell things when people aren’t ready to buy them.


Photo courtesy of Leading Authorities.