“ … the executive is, first of all, expected to get the right things done.”
By any standard, George W. Bush has been a remarkably effective executive. Not only is he the nation’s first MBA president, he is also, to borrow from Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern MBA executive. For Bush, the decision is the central presidential act.
Bush’s decisions build on the hard work of his team members. He counts on them to identify the issues, probe the facts, develop the options, and explore the implications. In the end, though, there can be no mistaking who is running the show, with an uncommon focus and discipline.
However, though Bush’s style has proven effective, it would be dangerous to suggest that all managers—or all presidents—ought to pursue such a style. What is most important about the Bush style is that it works for him. The lesson is not that managers ought to copy the successful style of another leader. Rather, the lesson is the broader strategy: Find a style that works, that produces results, and then stick religiously to it.
But being effective—getting things done—isn’t the only measure of an executive. As Drucker reminds us, the key is not only getting things done, but it’s also getting the right things done—and getting things done right. Weak decisions produce weak results. Strong decisions can produce strong results. But wrong decisions, even if well-executed, can push the executive—and the nation—off course.
A major risk of the Team Bush style is using old templates for new, complex, and fast-changing issues. Bush is one of the most grounded presidents the nation has seen in our lifetimes. He decides by sifting problems and options through his fundamental values. But if his decisions are black and white, the problems facing him are gray. Relying on deep values can bring uncommon discipline and focus. But it can also blind the leader to deceptively subtle new problems that don’t fit old strategies. Balancing the need for focus and consistent strategy with a shrewd eye for new puzzles is an especially important problem for the Bush style.
Another major risk of the Team Bush style is overreaching. Convinced of the rightness of the cause and relying on great skill in building support, Team Bush can easily overestimate its political strength and the public’s support for its initiatives. As in the 2002 midterm congressional elections, Bush has sometimes been a high-stakes gambler. A miscalculated gamble could leave him exposed, in both policy and political terms. His style is built on the premise that political capital that isn’t invested will be lost. But political capital placed on risky bets could drain his capital to zero and weaken his presidency, suddenly and dramatically.
The Team Bush style, more than most, courts serious dangers. It can be a special problem for teams that become too sheltered from outside ideas, new information, and different perspectives—and for teams so confident in their ability that they outrun their support.
Of course, all styles carry risks. Richard Nixon’s obsession with control ultimately cost him his presidency. Jimmy Carter’s impulse for the common touch seemed to diminish him and make him seem less presidential. Ronald Reagan’s penchant for delegation led to a loss of control over Central American policy. And Bush 41’s focus on international issues blinded him to the risks of a sluggish domestic economy.
Bush 43 is certainly not oblivious to the risks his style poses. However, he is also keenly sensitive to the possibility that worrying too much about the risks could undermine his ability to act. He clearly believes that there is a strong purpose for his presidency. Not to pursue it, strongly and aggressively, would be for him the biggest mistake of all. For George W. Bush, the position is not an end in itself, but an instrument to accomplish an important mission—one rooted in the very fiber of his being.
History, in the end, will judge whether he got things done—and whether the right things got done well. There will be a long list of decisions to examine: the insistence on long-term tax cuts even as the long-term deficit swelled; the decision not to ask the nation for sacrifice in the war on terrorism; the strategy of elevating the threat posed by Iraq over al Qaeda’s terrorism; the initial focus on Iraq over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; federal tax strategies that might have aggravated the budget problems in most state governments, which in turn proved a drag on the economy; and the decision to establish a huge new department of homeland security, with enormous startup costs that threatened to distract attention from the nation’s core homeland security problems.
The judgment, of course, will depend on the values of those keeping score. At his core, Bush is a traditional, conservative, pro-business, antiregulation Republican. Those who don’t share these values will quarrel with his record. His allies will celebrate his efforts to cement a new Republican majority around his core principles.
But it’s hard to escape the basic fact that Bush has been successful in reshaping the fabric of public affairs. His genuine accomplishments are all the more remarkable because he so clearly overcame the fears—or hopes—of Americans that he was an amiable dunce. In fact, he has skillfully used this to considerable political advantage, by lowering expectations only to surpass them, time after time.
From his heart and from his core, Bush deeply believes that he knows what is best, for himself, for the nation, and for the world. From his experience, he had strong instincts about what would work. From his internal compass, he had a clear sense of what was right.
The ultimate challenge for Team Bush is making fine adjustments to that compass, honing the capacity to carry decisions out effectively—and to refining its vision against the harsh, shifting, risky realities of the 21st century world. He does not have a board of directors to confirm his judgment. In fact, as noted earlier, half of his board—the Democrats in Congress—are working to undermine his claim to power. Nor does he have a financial bottom line against which to assess his success.
Instead, he has a decision cycle that never stops and that sometimes accelerates. New problems relentlessly surface. Old problems doggedly reappear. Voters forget policy successes and pointedly ask, “What have you done for me lately?” His challenge is to spend his political capital to do the right thing, to do it well, and in the doing, to build more capital to broaden his base to pursue even more tests. It would be impossible to imagine a more challenging crucible in which to test Bush’s style or his principles for leadership.