The Legacy of George H. W. Bush: A Humbly Competitive Leader

Korn Ferry Vice Chairman Nels Olson highlights two traits that leaders can emulate from his old boss.

Nels Olson was just 24 years old when he went to work in the White House for George H. W. Bush. Olson was there to identify and recommend candidates for spots in various cabinet agencies, and from time to time, the president would stop by.

Olson wasn’t necessarily struck by how approachable Bush was (“all good politicians are approachable,” he says). But what he did find remarkable was how much the 41st president valued what he, a very junior staffer, was doing. “There were thousands of acts of kindness, to everyone from heads of state to waiters,” Olson says. “His view was that all work was dignified, and I think that was one of the reasons he was successful.”

Olson is now a Korn Ferry vice chairman and recruits CEOs and board members to some of the world’s largest organizations. The passing of the former president, whose burial is Wednesday, reminds Olson of two traits that many leaders would do well to adopt.

Humbly competitive. Bush certainly had plenty of victorious moments in his career: winning congressional seats; being appointed director of the CIA; and, of course, winning the 1988 presidential election. One of his biggest accomplishments was overseeing a peaceful end to the decades-long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Yet while leaders may have been tempted to crown themselves in glory or denigrate their defeated opponents, Bush did none of that. Not gloating was smart politically; it engendered goodwill among people throughout the world. But that type of bragging wasn’t in his nature, either. “His mom used to say, “Don’t be braggadocious,” Olson says. All leaders are naturally competitive, he adds, but the best keep their own victories in perspective.

Being present. Bush was a leader by example. After his presidency, he teamed up with fellow former president Bill Clinton to raise money to help victims of the 2004 Indonesia tsunami. He could have easily just made some phone calls to private donors. Instead, he and Clinton literally toured the world, highlighting the issue and talking to people personally.

“All you have to do is care and roll up your sleeves and claim some of society’s problems as your own,” Bush told college students in 2007. That’s not something all leaders believe, Olson says. There are CEOs who sit in the corner office and never come out, and CEOs who get out and talk to members of their team and others all the way down the corporate ladder. That second type of leadership, Olson says, gets noticed and builds a positive culture.