By Gino Blefari
This week my travels find me first in Northern California and next in Orange County for meetings with our team. Instead of discussing the current state of our brands, or what I’ve read this week, today I want to reflect on a leader recently lost, the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush.
I watched the funeral service of President George H.W. Bush on Wednesday morning—I was lucky enough to meet him at a conference in 1998—and was profoundly moved by how many important leadership lessons he imparted and how many leaders he inspired throughout his life.
The funeral service was expectedly massive and brought together leaders from all sides of the aisle—every living President sat side by side—and produced so many stirring speeches from those who knew Bush best.
Historian Jon Meacham, Bush’s biographer, spoke at the service first, telling the gripping—and true—tale of Bush as a young Navy pilot, when his bomber plane was tragically downed by enemy fire somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, Bush’s crew members perished in the attack and when the young pilot realized he was the lone survivor, “felt the weight of responsibility as a nearly physical burden and he wept,” said Meacham. “The rest of his life was a perennial effort to prove himself worthy of his salvation on that distant morning.”
The experience solidified the virtues by which the President led: selflessness and sympathy. Even as a world leader, Bush was forever ready to offer a warm word or sympathetic tear.
Brian Mulroney, former Canadian Prime Minister, described the past President as someone with a “delightful sense of humor.” He said he was a leader who was “a lot of fun.” Bush loved to laugh, especially at himself. And as Bush’s leadership style affirmed, if you can have fun doing what you do, the infectious, joyous energy you project will shine onto all those you lead. President Bush was “genuinely content with the thrill and promise of each passing day,” Mulroney said.
Bush also lived by a simple credo: What would we do without family and friends? Alan Simpson, the former Senator of Wyoming from 1979-1997, spoke about how Bush was there for him years ago, when the future of his political career was uncertain. At the time, Bush was at the top of his game and Simpson’s own approval rating was fast sinking toward zero. Simpson asked Bush why he was willing to help him out, even after the former Wyoming Senator pledged his allegiance to the presidential candidacy of Ronald Regan. Bush simply replied: “This is about friendship and loyalty.”
Bush understood the importance of upholding friendships not only when his friends were doing well and thriving but also—and more importantly—when his friends were at their lowest. If others turned their backs, he offered an outstretched hand.
Bush’s son, George W. Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, also spoke at the service. “To his very last day, dad’s life was instructive. As he aged, he taught us how to grow with dignity, humor and kindness,” he said. Like Meacham, the 43rd President said his father was profoundly changed by the tragedies in his life. “I think those brushes with death made him cherish the gift of life,” he explained, characterizing his father as a “genuinely optimistic man.” President H.W. Bush looked for the good in each person and usually found it.
So, what’s the message? Let’s end this tribute with words from the former President’s inaugural address: “What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?” In all endeavors, as George H.W. Bush proved, we shouldn’t lead with a desire for our own success but instead with a desire to build and grow the success of others. Because success, as the 41st President of the United States defined it, wasn’t about titles or accolades. It was about family and friends who will carry on your legacy of benevolence long after your final day.