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Leaders Know Where They Want to Go: A Conversation with President George W. Bush

In his Listening to Leaders interview, President George W. Bush draws upon his international, national, and state leadership to discuss the importance of vision and values in leading people, organizations, and even nations. Those essentials start well before someone becomes a leader, he says, and they involve listening to people and caring for others.

Article by William McKenzie June 14, 2019 //   6 minute read
President George W. Bush speaks to the 2019 Presidential Leadership Scholars in May. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

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This article is an excerpt from the Bush Center's latest book. Read the full interview with President George W. Bush in Listening to Leaders.

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How do you define great leadership?

I define a great leader as someone who has vision, someone who knows where they want to go, and someone who will be able to define a set of principles that will enable a more successful journey.

A leader is optimistic and believes that the vision and the principles will lead to a better tomorrow. A leader also is someone who understands how to assemble a great team of people to achieve the vision. Someone who can laugh, someone who shares credit and who takes blame.

There is a lot in there about values and vision. Where do leaders get those? Where did they come from in your case?

I think it comes from how you were raised. In my case, it came from where I was raised -- in Midland, Texas. And I believe that one learns values through family and religion.

I don’t think leadership can be taught. But I think leadership comes in all different forms and one can gain leadership traits. They can gain the ability to lead through experience.

You mentioned optimism. We know the world can be a challenging place, even dark at times. How do leaders speak about hope and optimism with authenticity in moments like that?

The question is, are you an authentically optimistic person? I believe I am and I believe I am because of my religion. I believe religion, in my case Christianity, provides hope even in the darkest moments. I also was raised by optimistic people. Over time I came to realize how fortunate I was to have been raised by whom I was raised and where I was raised.

Keeping life in perspective is very important to keeping an optimistic view. That means recognizing everybody has problems, and a lot of people have bigger problems than me. And it means recognizing that every country’s got problems, and there are a lot with bigger problems than we have in America.

It seems like a lot of leadership is relational. Is knowing how to read people something that somebody can acquire or is that just innate?

To a certain extent, it’s innate. But it’s not so much how to read people, it is how to relate to people, how to listen to people, and how to care about people.

To be a people person, you really have to be interested in somebody, and you have to care about their plight and feelings. That’s a very important part of leadership. A leader understands that other people matter more than he or she does.

Another key trait to leadership is understanding the importance of culture, and that a culture has got to revolve around something other than a person. If a culture is based on a personality, then that culture will fail because all people are infallible. If the culture’s based upon larger concepts, then it is much easier to build a team of people who are headed in the same direction.

How do leaders apply these skills in the international arena where people come from different backgrounds and cultures?

First, you’ve got to understand that there are universal values. One such value is that freedom is a universal thought. In other words, it’s not America’s gift. It is inherent in every soul. That thought was very controversial when I was president, but what would have made it more controversial would have been to equivocate on it.

Fortunately, there are historical examples of the universality of freedom, and that freedom leads to peace. Japan and Germany after World War II are examples. The fact that democracies don’t war with each other is another example.

By applying universal thought in a complex international world, you’re able to find common ground. Again, not every leader agreed. But ultimately that’s where the world will head with the proper leadership.

Secondly, like anything else, spending time with these leaders and getting to know leaders and listening to them is important. An ironic friendship I had was with (then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi. The reason we became friends is because we spent a lot of time talking about our lives and common interests. I listened to his view of the history of Japan and where he wanted to take his nation. If you listen to the person and take time to engage with them, you find common ground.

Historian Ronald White said in an interview for this series that leaders need a good sense of timing so they know what to say in a particular moment. How do you learn that?

A lot of it depends on the people you surround yourself with who will make timing recommendations. One of my miscalculations was the timing of whether or not to spend political capital on Social Security or immigration reform after the 2004 election. As I look back on it, I didn’t do a very good job of listening to advisors and moved ahead with Social Security reform. I regret having done that. In retrospect, my moving ahead cost an opportunity, I think, to reform immigration.

Read the full interview with President Bush and other leaders in the Bush Institute's latest book, Listening to Leaders