“This stuff about transformed? From my perspective, he is the same President Bush that I saw going through different issues in Texas. He’s always been decisive, he’s always been disciplined, he’s always been really focused, he’s always been a really good delegator.”
—Karen Hughes, on the change in President Bush after September 11
Throughout his career as a political executive, George W. Bush has consistently exceeded expectations. Doing it once or twice might be lucky. Doing it over and over has to require real skill.
What’s the secret? Bush has carefully honed a style, based on building an effective team, to make strong decisions. He doesn’t try to master the complexities of decisions. Rather, he builds a team, he makes them master the complexities, he has them frame the issues—and then he decides, firmly and without second thoughts. He’s ridden this style, over and over, to successes that have amazed his friends and stunned his foes.
Consider a quick scorecard. Few analysts gave him a chance of unseating Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1994, yet he beat her in the race. Political handicappers gave him slim odds for a successful gubernatorial term, but he rolled to a huge victory in 1998. He explored a presidential run, but cynics suggested he wasn’t nearly smart enough to be the nation’s chief executive. When he won the nomination, Democrats relished the idea of Al Gore taking him on.
One Republican insider, in fact, quietly whispered that watching Bush debate was like watching his 12-month-old daughter try to walk, “never knowing when she might fall on her face.”
Bush astounded everyone by holding his own against the vice president. He rode his debate performance to a razor-thin presidential victory. When he got to Washington, insiders discounted the chance that he could accomplish anything. Most Americans doubted that Bush and congressional Democrats could put politics aside to work together. But he cobbled together enough votes to pass a big, 10-year tax cut.
Even his friends were worried about how ready he’d be to make foreign policy decisions. During the campaign, BBC News asked bluntly, “Can nice guy George Junior shed his image as a political lightweight and demonstrate that he’s made of steel? Has he got what it takes for one of the most powerful jobs in the world?”
But in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush rallied the country. When he threatened the Taliban in Afghanistan, skeptics pointed to the Russians’ devastating defeat in their own war with that country. Analysts warned that Bush’s plan might draw the United States into another Vietnam. Bush attacked anyway. Within weeks the Taliban crumbled. Bush’s approval rating soared to the highest level ever recorded.
Democrats reassured themselves with the fact that the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterm congressional elections. They thought they could keep control of the Senate and dreamed of retaking the House. Bush launched a whirlwind last-week salvo of campaigning. Republicans not only retained control of the House in 2002 but retook the Senate. Bush yet again exceeded expectations. In the process, he solidified his position. He worked to capitalize on his strength by launching an economic stimulus plan, seeking to disarm Saddam Hussein, and countering North Korea’s threats to destabilize Asia.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the clear consensus was that the world had fundamentally changed. In a stirring editorial, the New York Times said, “It was, in fact, one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after.’” The sudden, awesome impact of the terrorists’ attacks fundamentally transformed everything about the country and its role in the world.
If the world had changed, the striking thing is that Bush had not. He was the same man, with the same style, as he had been as Texas governor. He had a strong sense of confidence, a vision of what ought to be done, and a determination to do the job right. He focused on the big picture with a decide-and-delegate style torn from the pages of MBA casebooks. He didn’t devise a new style to deal with the unimaginable catastrophe. He put to work the style he had developed throughout his life and had honed as Texas governor.
People have always underestimated him. In fact, some handicappers have rated him the fourth best politician in his family (after his father, mother, and brother Jeb). None have ever given him good odds for success. Yet time after time, he has exceeded expectations. He has proven himself a surprisingly effective executive—a “reformer with results,” as he promised during his 2000 presidential campaign. His easygoing outward manner masks a tough, decisive executive who has consistently performed far better as a political leader than almost anyone had imagined.
Just as important, he has lured opponents and skeptics into underestimating him. Some of that comes from the image of the amiable dunce he has never been able to shake. Some of it comes from the fact that his core skills aren’t analytical. Rather, they come from his finely tuned skill of building a team and then using that team to make decisions.
Bush has a style that works for him and that fits his approach to management. As Vance McMahan, former policy director for Bush in Austin, remarked, “It’s often said he’s a man comfortable in his own skin—and I think that’s exactly right.”
Bush has a core set of ideas about what makes a good manager. He knows himself, he knows what works for him, and he uses that style to guide his decisions with laserlike precision.
Lawrence B. Lindsey, who had served in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations before becoming a governor of the Federal Reserve Board and a Bush economic adviser, told a reporter during the 2000 campaign, “The thing that struck me most about Bush early on was how thoroughly comfortable with himself he was.”
Lindsey had brought together economists to advise the campaign. He found, “He’s really a CEO. He asks us for our advice and we give it. Of course, if you have six economists, you get seven opinions. Then he calls the shots.”
Lindsey also discovered that Bush wasn’t shy about rejecting advice he didn’t find helpful. “He’s very much a Texan,” he explained, “and I was once on the receiving end of a very straight-shooting response that one would not want to see printed.”
Historians will undoubtedly take generations to decide on his legacy. Policy wonks will battle over whether he’s made right or wrong decisions. Friends will praise him for his leadership, and foes will criticize him for his mistakes. However, it’s impossible to escape the central fact: Bush has a distinctive management style that shapes his decisions and, indeed, his presidency. It’s as clear and powerful a style as any president has brought to the Oval Office. Thus, to understand Bush, it’s essential first to understand his style. And even to begin charting his legacy will require starting first with the way he approaches the job.
Bill Clinton used to complain quietly that he was destined never to be a great president because history never dealt him great problems. From his first days, Bush certainly never had that worry—history dealt him great problems, in spades. Bill Clinton also used to talk about building a bridge to the 21st century. He argued that the Reagan-Bush years marked not only the end of the 20th century, but also the end of a generation of public policy. Clinton hoped to define the new policies that would shape America for the next generation, but the failure of his health-care plan, his battle with Newt Gingrich and the congressional Republicans, his extramarital affair, and his impeachment by Congress made that impossible.
History, in fact, might conclude that Clinton was a bridge to the 21st century—but that the presidency of George W. Bush was on the other side. Whether that is history’s judgment—or whether Bush, like Clinton, ends up as another transitional figure en route to yet another new reality—depends on how Bush uses his style to shape the nation’s policy.
What’s the core of the Bush style? Is it his training as an MBA? After all, Bush is the nation’s first MBA president, a 1975 graduate of the Harvard Business School. For years, private sector managers have contended that government would work much better if it operated according to business practice. Once in government, many of them found out the hard way that many business strategies didn’t work in the public sector and that government presented its own unique and daunting challenges. Is Bush living proof that strategic, disciplined, team-based MBA strategy can work in government?
Or is it Bush’s leadership? Bush has approached a wide range of jobs, from co-ownership of the Texas Rangers baseball team to the Texas governorship, in much the same way as he has subsequently managed the presidency. After middling success, at best, as a business executive, he hit his stride in elective office. Is Bush proof that leadership rests in the leader—and that understanding this particular leader requires an uncommonly subtle analysis?
George W. Bush entered the White House with a keen sense of how he would seize the reins. It was a sense centered on building and nurturing a team. He is not—indeed, he never has been—a man centered on himself. In fact, as former aide McMahan explained, “He was somebody who has as little degree of pretension as anyone I’ve ever met. You’d think that someone exposed to the life experiences he was would be full of himself—but that was the furthest thing from the truth.”
Closer to the truth is the fact that Bush is a naturally gregarious guy who has an easy way with people and relies heavily on an executive team. The key to understanding Bush the leader lies in understanding how Bush leads and manages his team.
As with any style, Bush’s approach to management contains tactics that help make him highly effective—and elements that can pose big problems. He builds his style on teamwork, but his insight is only as good as the vision of his team. “Groupthink” can blind leaders to problems they ought to solve but fail to see. He believes in building on past success, but the more success grows the more it can tempt leaders to overreach. He is a remarkably decisive leader, but determined leaders can weaken themselves by moving too far beyond their base of support.
Bush has a surprising record of success as a political executive. He’s consistently surprised people by making effective decisions. However, it’s one thing to do things well. It’s another to do the right things. As president, George W. Bush has faced some of the toughest policy problems in a generation. The ultimate test of his style and the definitive judgment of his presidency will hinge on whether his style enables him to execute the right decisions—or whether it lures him down the wrong roads. The puzzle is as fascinating as for any president in American history.
What follows are the leadership ideas and methods of America’s 43rd president, an individual who has tried to surround himself with the best and to bring out the best in them.