Last summer, I sat down to write an essay evaluating George W. Bush as a leader. My goal: to reach beyond the usual anti-Bush base, and make a case that enlightened corporate managers or executives might appreciate. Then, Hurricane Katrina happened, and Bush's incompetence became so self-evident that any attempt to write about it seemed redundant. But Bush and Rove continue to survive; in fact their polls have ticked upwards. So I've hauled this essay out of the deep freeze, and polished it off. The point: that, even politics aside, the man is simply a catastrophe as a leader.
Essay after the fold...
In recent years, as a business writer, I've had the privilege of closely studying leadership, and interviewing dozens of senior leaders at some of the world's largest companies. I've come to understand the crucial importance of leadership to the success of any organization. I can't help but comparing our best business leaders with President Bush. The President does not measure up well.
We have all been told that he is "resolute." But there is far more to excellence in leadership.
Great leaders make sacrifices and ask for equitable, shared sacrifices from those who follow them.
After 9/11, when asked what Americans should do to support the War on Terrorism, Bush asked us to shop, and to support his tax cuts. By telling Americans that they need not sacrifice, he offered an unspoken, unintended message: the War on Terrorism was not, in fact, serious. His failure to ask for shared sacrifice has had disastrous results, not least in the collapse in military recruitment that has weakened the nation, placing us at great risk should a military emergency occur outside Iraq.
Great leaders are accountable, take responsibility, and hold others accountable.
George W. Bush's approach to personal accountability can be captured in two revealing moments. In a 2001 interview with Bob Woodward, Bush observed, "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
After his narrow re-election, Bush said there would be no need to hold anyone in his administration accountable for errors in Iraq. His words: "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections." By no stretch can a reasonable observer say that George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer succeeded at their responsibilities. Nevertheless, George Bush chose to award them each the Presidential Medal of Honor, the nation's highest civilian honor. Donald Rumsfeld remains in charge of the Defense Department, while -- even at this late date, and after all the publicity -- Americans still die for lack of adequate vehicle armor. Many of the State, Defense, and CIA officials who were most wrong about Iraq have been promoted; those who were correct have had their wings clipped. The message is crystal-clear: in the Bush administration, loyalty will be rewarded over performance.
(In all this, he is abetted by a Republican Congress with no interest in investigating any facet of the administration's perfomance, from the outright loss and theft of billions of dollars in Iraq, to the phony numbers used by the Department of Health and Human Services to sell the President's prescription drug benefit program. Conservatives once understood the inevitable corruption associated with absolute power. They have chosen to forget.)
Great leaders seek out a wide range of opinions and worldviews, in order to make the highest quality decisions.
Since he first took office, Bush has systematically organized his public appearances to avoid being questioned by anyone likely to disagree with him. In private, things appear to be little different. Even former Bush speechwriter (and long-time avid supporter) David Frum has had to admit, "One seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met someone who possessed unusual knowledge."
Great leaders are reflective about their personal limitations, seek to understand how those limitations impact their decision-making, and work to overcome those limitations, and learn from their failures.
After JFK made the disastrous Bay of Pigs decision, he systematically sought to understand why his decision-making processes had failed so thoroughly, and completely revamped them to include a wider range of viewpoints, and make sure hidden assumptions were challenged. When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, he was far better prepared to make the right decisions. But there is no evidence that Bush believes his decision-making processes on Iraq were flawed, and no evidence that he is working to improve them.
Great leaders of today's large organizations understand the value of decentralization, empowerment, and openness in achieving their goals.
In contrast, Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove have systematically sought to limit access to information and centralize decision-making throughout the government, not just in areas related to national security.
When George Bush became President, the law was clear: former Presidents had exclusive access to their papers for 12 years. Then, those papers became public property. Bush's Executive Order that changed all that -- and placed off-limits any papers belonging to Ronald Reagan and Reagan's vice president, George Bush, Sr. When George Bush became President, the Freedom of Information Act was interpreted with a presumption in favor of disclosure. Bush changed all that: not only in areas of national security, but throughout the government. He has sought to hide everything from census data to the Vice President's secret contacts with energy companies. He has made it difficult or impossible for Congress -- even his Republican Congress -- to get the records they need to oversee our tax expenditures. He even opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission, and fought to limit the government's cooperation with it. How can an organization -- much less a democracy -- function well without information? It cannot.
Great leaders understand the profound impact their decisions can have on others, and make life-and-death decisions with the utmost seriousness.
In 1999, George Bush told his then-biographer, respected Houston journalist Mickey Herskovitz, "One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade... if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency." It hardly needs saying that an individual who views war as an opportunity for political advantage is not someone who has fully engaged the implications to those he leads as commander-in-chief.
Even as Americans were dying in Iraq searching for phantom WMDs, George W. Bush attended a Washington press corps dinner, offering up a skit on the subject. Looking under furniture and in the corners of the Oval Office, Bush joked, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere... No, no weapons over there... Maybe under here?"
Great leaders are respectful of their adversaries, and work to bring their organizations together, rather than dividing them.
In 2002, when President Bush was receiving virtually unanimous support in Congress for his actions in the War on Terrorism, he sent political advisor Karl Rove around the country advising Republicans to run on "terrorism," making the charge that his adversaries were weak on terrorism. (Hence ads seeking to equate disabled veteran Max Cleland with Osama Bin Laden.) Bush won, but in so doing, made it clear that partisan politics were more important to him than national unity. His scorched-earth policies had a practical cost to the nation: his adversaries recognized that there was no benefit whatsoever in cooperating with him: they would be savaged either way.
When George Bush's supporters accuse their opponents of treason, or call them the "enemy within," the President stands silent. When George Bush's supporters (read: Pat Robertson) talk of murdering foreign leaders, the President stands silent. The silence speaks volumes.
From the experiences of Paul O'Neill, Richard A. Clarke, Joseph Wilson, Christian Westermann, and countless others with lower profiles, a pattern has become clear. If you oppose the President or disagree with his policies, this administration will seek to destroy you personally, in order to avoid engaging the substance of your claims.
This is Karl Rove politics, from the man who spread rumors that John McCain had fathered illegitimate children, and -- according to last November's carefully reported Atlantic Monthly article -- spread the false rumor that Alabama judge Mark Kennedy was a pedophile. It is highly effective -- if your only goals are to win, and to discourage honest, open debate. But it is profoundly damaging to the nation.
Great leaders focus on the long term as well as the short-term, recognizing that their stewardship will affect their organizations for generations to come.
George Bush has systematically ignored many of the most fundamental long-term problems faced by the United States.
For the first time since the Manhattan Project, nuclear proliferation is on the verge of spiraling out of control. The President largely ignored the problem for most of the past five years, undermining existing treaties and safeguards, and failing to fund programs intended to control loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.
The United States is far more dependent on foreign oil than ever before. There is increasing evidence that worldwide oil demand will skyrocket past supply in the coming years, and even ExxonMobil now believes we are approaching hard production limits. Yet the President's recent multi-billion dollar energy bill does little to promote conservation, and after five years opposing improvements in fuel efficiency standards, he has proposed changes so minor as to be virtually meaningless. Meanwhile, the last halfway-credible scientific arguments against man-made global warming have crumbled in the past year -- and career military officers are running wargame scenarios on its potentially catastrophic impacts. Yet the President still opposes any measures that require anyone to actually do anything about it.
In the past five years, America's long-term strategic position vis-a-vis China has deteriorated rapidly. China now helps fund not only our enormous trade deficits, but also the federal budget deficits that George Bush's tax cuts helped to create. Increasingly, the world's centers of economic and geopolitical power are moving away from an America George Bush has systematically weakened. Meanwhile American culture faces unprecedented resistance, and our brands find it increasingly difficult to compete overseas, where they must overcome the negative perception of an America personified by George Bush.
Meanwhile, at home, individual Americans confront more personal risk and uncertainty than they ever have: risks of layoffs, of bankruptcy arising from healthcare costs, of risks to their retirement savings. With virtually no savings, tens of millions of middle class Americans are just one or two bad years away from poverty.
None of these problems will be easy to solve. They are obviously not all his creation, and they cannot be solved by a President alone. That is not the point. The point is that he has largely ignored them, and in some cases exacerbated them. When he retires to his ranch, he will leave the rest of us with problems far graver than they were when took office, far graver than they needed to be.
Great leaders face reality.
George W. Bush sold himself as a realist, but even many of the President's supporters recognize that he systematically ignores unpleasant realities and engineers his day-to-day experience as President to make ignoring reality easier. As New York Daily News White House correspondents reported recently, "A card-carrying member of the Washington GOP establishment with close ties to the White House recently encountered several senior presidential aides at a dinner and came away shaking his head at their `no problems here' mentality. "There is just no introspection there at all," he said in exasperation. "It is everybody else's fault - the press, gutless Republicans on the Hill. They're still in denial."
Ron Suskind captured this administration's worldview perfectly, quoting an unnamed Bush aide:
"The aide said that guys like me were `in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who `believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality... That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. `We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'" For all the value of bold action, few leaders have ever succeeded in the long term with this level of contempt for "discernible reality."
Last but not least, great leaders establish a culture of integrity. They reward honesty and candor, and tolerate nothing less. Replacing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush promised to do just that. He has not.
Of this administration's many demonstrable lies, one stands out to me personally as the most contemptible. In the days after 9/11, the White House edited EPA press releases to state that the air around Ground Zero was safe, without supporting evidence. In fact, it deleted evidence to the contrary. We may never know how many first responders and others will die as a result of believing the Bush administration. Since these charges were found true by the EPA's Inspector General, has anyone ever been held accountable?
Equally corrosive: the constant misrepresentations, professionally crafted to leave impressions that are exactly opposite to the truth. To leave the impression that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, without actually saying so. To leave the impression that the President's privatization plan would solve the social security deficit, without actually saying so. To leave the impression that the President's tax cuts were distributed fairly across all income levels, without actually saying so. To leave the impression that estate taxes keep millions of Americans from protecting their family businesses and farms, without actually saying so. And on, and on, and on.
Among the greatest tragedies is how George Bush's leadership is damaging the U.S. military. In the wake of Vietnam, the military spent 30 years rebuilding a culture of honor and truth. By their actions, President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have profoundly weakened that culture. They have cashiered military leaders, such as General Eric Shinseki, who spoke candidly that more troops would be required to achieve the mission in Iraq. They have overruled military lawyers who sought to follow the international laws about torture and prisoner treatment that the President swore to uphold. These messages -- that honesty will be punished, that the ends justify any means, that loyalty to George Bush is more important than the law or the truth -- will have terrible long-term consequences.
When President Clinton said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he was a piker compared to the wordsmiths who've followed him. As great leaders know, lies and conscious misrepresentations breed cynicism, and make effective leadership impossible. Cynicism poisons any organization, but it is especially fatal to the type of democratic, republican government we all claim to believe in.
Being a great leader is difficult. If it were not, we would have more of them. From James Buchanan to Jimmy Carter, many Presidents have been weak leaders. However, no President in our lifetimes has failed as thoroughly as George W. Bush. Were his leadership merely fodder for a B-school case study, it would be different. But, from the freshly-dug graves at Arlington to the nation's spiraling current account and federal budget deficits, the results are all around us. We need a better leader. And we cannot afford to wait three more years for one.
Cross-posted at Bill Camarda's blog, www.billcamarda.com/weblog.htm