GHW Bush and Me: Four lessons in leadership

By Dianne Timmering – Contributor to Louisville Business First, USA

“The future simply belongs to nations that can remain on the cutting edge. … Individuals wield power as never before. An innovator equipped with ideas and the freedom to turn them into inventions can change the way we live. Governments that strive only to maintain a monopoly of power … will fall by the wayside, swept away by the tides of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

These words could easily land in a leadership speech today about the American business mindset, but they are ones given by President George H.W. Bush when we were on an official visit to Singapore in January 1992, addressing the Pacific-Asian alliance of ASEAN nations (Association of Southeast Asia). That was 26 years ago.

As I sit here viewing the funeral procession, tears fill me and I am so proud to offer these four lessons I learned from my time with this visionary leader.

Lesson #1 – Do not fear the visionary life of seeing what will become, of what can be.

When I reflect back on my extraordinary time with the president, I remember again who I am — a risk-taking visionary whose purpose is to, if not change the world, help it, lead it in some way. It is always good to remember what you were meant to do, with new resolve of courage and fortitude.

I was in my mid-20s when I got the opportunity to work for Bush’s White House as a lead advance representative, where short timeframes and crafting messaging were critical to the day-to-day success or failures of the country’s daily economic and geopolitical life. Our jobs included shaping and delivering the policy message; creating, with local communities or embassies, moments of distribution that the press corps covered and with protective direction from the Secret Service and the White House Communications team.

Leadership lesson #2 – It’s OK not to know what to do immediately, and in a moment of desperate panic, be steady.

I remember my first close-up encounter with President Bush in October 1989, when there was that horrific earthquake in San Francisco. I was advancing a Republican governor’s event at a local hotel when it happened. The president walked off stage after his speech to learn of such destruction, human misery, civic annihilation. I’ll never forget how he looked, the sweat, the brush of his hand across the brow, the sorrow in his eyes — the desperation of what was to be done, what could be done to rebuild, to heal, to give them back the city that natural disaster had taken away. I remember him going to the secure holding room, making call after call to key leaders — solutions on the edge of every question. And I knew I was working for a good guy, one who loved his people and his country.

Leadership lesson #3 – be willing to have the critical meeting, even in controversy

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and on that day, the president announced Operation Desert Shield prior to formally entering the war months later. While in Paris for an economic summit of the G7, it was decided we would make a clandestine stop in Geneva — neutral territory — to meet with President Assad of Syria. With only hours to prepare for the bilateral meeting to consolidate Arab support, I remember how determined the president was in meeting with his Syrian counterpart, even in a storm of controversy, as they discussed confidential measures to end a war that no one wanted to start. President Bush was unapologetic, stating “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” with the goal of uniting the Arab coalition. He weighed the odds of not doing anything, which might have changed the outcome entirely. Without risk, it seems to me, there is no real way to truly lead. Without authenticity, there is no real way for anyone to hear you, or even to keep listening.

Lesson #4: Don’t fear those who oppose you.

During the 1992 campaign, we were on the road nonstop. One of the coolest routes we took was a train or “whistle-stop” tour across the South and the Midwest, and I found myself in boutique towns such as Cornelia, Ga., and Oshkosh, Wisc. On the campaign trail as the race tightened between Bush and Clinton, protesters came to our events. They would hide bull horns and signs in their overcoats, and we would have to be on the lookout for bulky appearances. Their modus operandi was to create pockets of noise in small groups in crowds of thousands, effective enough in disrupting a festive event that we were calling Victory ’92. (You’ve got to have a mission statement!) There were more protesters in Oshkosh than I had remembered at previous events, and I ran to the leadership team to let them know. It came down from the President that he was glad they were there — let’s listen to them, so then maybe they will listen to us; let’s give them a reason to change their minds.

All lessons need good stories. How else will we remember the best-kept secrets of good leadership or the fables that give life and texture and a truth worth hearing, worth listening to? I have a renewed courage for today and tomorrow. Thank you, President Bush — yours was the heart of a king.

Dec 5, 2018 Updated Dec 5, 2018, 3:14pm EST

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