Though Bush distinguished himself for his easygoing ways, he did not set himself apart as one of the business school’s top scholars. Howard Stevenson, one of his professors recalled that Bush “wrote a decent essay.” Another professor, Michael E. Porter—who later became an economic policy adviser to the Bush campaign—agreed that Bush “was not a star academic performer.”
He didn’t excel, but his diligence did put him in the middle of the pack. However, everyone who knew him agreed that he displayed unusual charisma and teamwork. For example, when students were put to work on a three-day, schoolwide business simulation exercise. Bush’s class section elected him one of the team presidents. Though his team did not win the competition, Porter told them that their collegiality would probably have produced the best results over the long haul. Bush, Porter remembered later, “was very good at getting along with people and getting things done.”
The field of business was undergoing a fundamental change. In the 1960s, business expertise was by-the-numbers, focused on sharpening strategy, analyzing alternatives, and maximizing the bottom line. By the time Bush entered the Harvard Business School, this numbers-driven model was losing its appeal. His professors believed that it was no longer useful for a leader to set strategy by knowing the right thing to do, through expertise and in-depth analysis; that approach had led to some well-publicized failures, like the Ford Edsel. In government, it had led to Vietnam. So business schools developed a new approach, which held that no manager could know everything—that expertise was based in the knowledge an organization’s employees developed, and that a smart leader built a strong team that could marshal that knowledge.
The cases students studied taught them to look and listen carefully, to learn from past mistakes, and to build a business plan for action. Students learned to be leaders by talking with—and listening to—their team members, by making tough strategic decisions, by writing a business plan for action, and then by relying on the team to carry out the plan. Most of all, the business school’s case method and the Socratic question-and-answer teaching style hammered home the lesson that there is no right answer for most hard problems. Leaders had to be adept at analyzing problems carefully, understanding the issues at the core, and then coming to judgments about how best to solve them.
The team-building spirit spilled over to a culture of cultivating contacts—social, business, and political. Bush particularly thrived in that part of his education. He did better in class participation than in written exams. In one intense case-preparation session with his teammates, he dove enthusiastically into a survey of area hardware stores to discover who carried the product they were studying and how they tried to sell it. His classmates remember him as an easygoing entrepreneur, an irreverent guy who was easy to work with, a leader who led through his ability to connect with people.
Afterward, in his later career, Bush never made much of his business school background. His campaign biography, A Charge to Keep, spends only a few pages discussing his Harvard days, and little of that focuses on what he learned there. In his failed 1978 run for a congressional seat in West Texas, his opponent seized on the Harvard MBA to label him an elitist. Bush has long worked to reconcile his privileged upbringing with his easy personal style. It is no doubt the reason he developed an aw-shucks, plain-talking, populist streak, and downplayed the business degree.
It’s clear, though, that while resisting the MBA label, Bush embraced the new MBA team-based approach. He was more a student of people than of books. He focused on the big picture rather than on the little details. He relied heavily on teamwork and worked hard to build strong bonds among his team members. In case after case—his prep school days at Phillips Academy, where he pulled together a cheerleading squad; his stint as fraternity president; his leadership of the business school study groups—Bush found himself at the center of the action by becoming the center of the team.
The team-based relationships have, in many cases, led to lifelong friendships and invaluable campaign help. Many of his Harvard Business School friends became contributors and fund-raisers. Classmate Al Hubbard, for one, put together Bush’s campaign team. Just as Bush had hoped when he surprised his parents in applying, the MBA did indeed change his horizon. The central lesson of his MBA education was the role of teamwork.