Learning from President George H.W. Bush and his team: Top 10 Takeaways from Presidential Leadership Scholars Program—Session 5

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Feature photo: The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, where Presidential Leadership Scholars Program Session 5 was held. [Source: Texas A&M University]

The focus of Session 5 for the Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) Program was coalition building. To take a closer look at how to build lasting alliances across diverse stakeholder groups, we studied the presidency of George H.W. Bush and examined German reunification as a case study of coalition building during a critical moment in history. It was pretty fascinating to listen to former Secretary of State James Baker give us behind the scenes play by play of how he and President Bush worked to build a coalition among Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand, and Helmut Kohl that would support the reunification of Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

As we have been studying the various U.S. Presidents and how they led, it has been enlightening for me to see how truly unique each one was in how he led the nation. As an example, President Bush’s leadership style was very different than President Johnson’s. President Johnson used horse-trading, strong-arming, and even bullying to influence Congress and pass an unprecedented amount of foundational legislation during his time in office. President Bush on the other hand, was a quiet leader – listening and asking questions to get to answers and a unified direction.

Because of the way PLS is structured, we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision in learning from the (often back-to-back) decisions that the Presidents made during chaotic situations – often with very few resources, information, or time. We have the opportunity to learn from how they made these key decisions in history as we dissect the options that each President had on the table as he and his team tried to weigh the factors at play and make the best decision for the country.

Here are some of the top leadership takeaways from Session 5:

  1. Step forward. The world can change when people come together with one voice and are willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe in.
  2. Empower your people to win. A leader moves to the top by elevating others. Good leaders understand that they win only if their people win.
  3. Build trust by investing in relationships. Successful partnerships depend on individual-level relationships. Build these with people who are likely to be key players in the long run. When you and your team come under fire, it’s the personal relationships and trust that will enable to you hunker down and fight through to victory.
  4. Listen and ask questions. President Bush was able to build powerful coalitions because he spent time with people. He listened to them. He asked questions – “What are you thinking?” “What are your biggest fears?” “How can we help in this situation?”
  5. Know yourself and your team. You must know who you are as a leader and as an organization before you enter into a strategic partnership. You can create something special from two whole entities, but don’t look to “find yourself” through building a strategic partnership. The old Jerry Maguire “You complete me…” doesn’t apply here.
  6. Take one for the team. Many times, a leader has to take a look at the cards on the table and make the call to take a personal loss for the gain of the team or organization he is leading.
  7. Equip your team for success. In a high pressure situation where your team cannot afford to fail, give your team everything they ask for and ensure that they understand you will find a way to support them with additional resources should they need them.
  8. Form partnerships only when vital to success – not just because they’re trendy. Partnership formation and management are time consuming and demanding. They take attention and resources away from productive activities, and they are notoriously difficult to manage. Use them sparingly and wisely.
  9. Find the bottom line. When forming a coalition, understand the need of individuals and how they can and cannot come together. Find the bottom line for each stakeholder, listen, and make sure everyone gets his bottom line.
  10. Make the first move. In a negotiation, make the opening offer, but be reasonable, because if it is outlandish, you will ‘cool’ people to your idea. Try to discover your opponent’s BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement), and come in just above it with your offer.

I can’t believe this program is almost over. I have learned so much and grown significantly as a leader over the last six months of participation in #PLScholars. It has been such a humbling, eye-opening experience. I’m already looking forward to our final session together at the Bush Center in Dallas in a few weeks. I’ll keep you posted.

Jake Harriman

About Jake Harriman

Founder & CEO — Jake graduated with distinction from the US Naval Academy and served seven and a half years as an Infantry and Special Operations Platoon Commander in the Marine Corps. Jake left the military and enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International. Upon graduation, Jake led a team to launch Nuru’s first project in Kenya.

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