“I’m not afraid to surround myself with strong and competent people.”
—George W. Bush, on naming his cabinet
“Individual commitment to a team effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
Even more than most executives, the American president must rely on a strong team. The problems are huge, and the costs of a misstep can be staggering. Choosing the best policy options requires a keen sense of the core problems and the most solid information available. Getting that information, however, is tough. The president is constantly surrounded by the Secret Service, monitored by television film crews, and trailed by reporters.
That makes it hard for the president to get a good pulse on what people are thinking, to gauge what is happening beyond the White House gates, and to understand the most important issues of the day. The president lies at the bottom of an enormous funnel that distills vast quantities of information—from figures on retail sales to assessment of guerrilla movements in the Philippines—into short, digestible memos.
What he knows he learns from a vast store of information boiled down by his staff. He constantly risks being overwhelmed by unimportant detail and blinded to critical facts. That is true for all executives, of course, but even more so for the president. The fundamental difference is that the stakes for presidential decision-making are incalculably higher than anything in the private sector.
Bush came to the White House as the only president to have worked there before taking office. Perhaps no president in history started the job better schooled in the intricacies of the Oval Office. He had served his father as a closet adviser on policy and process. On occasion he even served as hatchet man, to fire high-level staff members—like onetime chief of staff John Sununu—that no one else could touch. It was during the first years of his father’s presidency that Sununu tightly controlled access to the Oval Office. Advisers who wanted to talk to the president first had to be cleared by Sununu. This created enormous frustration among aides, who jockeyed for position and on occasion leaked stories to the media to get their message to the president. It also caused serious problems for the president, who sometimes found himself shielded from advice and the bad news he needed to hear. Number 41 trusted his son more than any of his advisers, and when a consensus emerged that Sununu had to go, W delivered the news.
The lesson of surrounding himself with a solid, trustworthy team was not lost on Bush 43. He came away from his White House experiences with a sense of what had worked well for his father and what had served his father poorly, and later, of how he might organize his own team.