Our Advice, from W. & Bill

Two ex-presidents offer remarkably similar ideas on leadership.

Put a Republican and Democrat leader in a room and what do you get? A ton to agree on.

No kidding. Despite long partisan disagreements, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton offered remarkably similar advice about leadership while appearing recently at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. 

The two have developed a close friendship in their years since serving in the White House. At the talk, part of the graduation ceremony for the 2017 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, the conversation avoided today’s political dramas and solved the great mystery behind why Bush took up painting after leaving office. (“I was bored”). The talk also illustrated five tips both believed were critical for leaders.

Good things can come from failure. Both Bush and Clinton lost congressional elections before they became presidents, and both said that it was the “best thing” that ever happened to them. Clinton lost his first race in 1974 to a popular incumbent, but he learned the value of talking directly with voters. “I learned 75 percent of what I know about politics in that first race.”

When you do have success: don’t gloat. “Be humble in victory, which is very important in dealing with other people,” Bush said. In 2004, a tsunami devastated many parts of Asia and Bush asked Clinton to team up with his father, former president George H.W. Bush, to help with relief efforts. Clinton defeated the elder Bush in 1992 after a contentious campaign, but after the tsunami the two helped raised millions of dollars of private U.S. aid. The younger Bush said the reason the two men were effective was because Clinton refused to gloat after his victory.

Take advice “You have to listen to people who know what you don’t know,” Bush says. One of those people he listened to: his predecessor. Clinton, Bush said, knew a lot about a variety of issues, particularly international affairs. “I knew I could count on him for good advice and he was gracious in taking my calls.”

Be agileLeaders have to recognize that things that worked in the past may not work in a new situation. Clinton said he thought he was a good communicator until he got to the White House, but he quickly found that his style, combined with the multiple layers separating him from ordinary Americans, transformed into a “two-dimensional cartoon.” Clinton said he had to figure out what subjects to talk about and how to talk about them. “I fell on my face four or five times before I figured out how to do it,”

Have a purposeBefore Bush was elected president, he first elected governor of Texas, defeating a popular incumbent. He did it not by laying out three things that he wanted to accomplish, and the message resonated. You need a critical idea of what you want to accomplish, Clinton says. When your tenure as leader is done, Clinton said, you want to be able to say “people are better off when I quit," not just “look at all the people I beat.”