As the 41st president of the United States of America is remembered and laid to rest, there are scores of lessons to be harvested from his life of service to the country and to the cause of freedom around the world. Many will focus on his vast accomplishments as a war hero, businessman, member of Congress, director of the CIA, vice president and president. However, the greater meaning, in a most meaningful life, can be found in counterintuitive moments and contrarian flashpoints that illuminated the essence of a most remarkable man.
Leadership today is often measured by egocentric ambition, braggadocio bombast, winning at any cost and by welcoming public praise. George H.W. Bush proved that humility, quiet confidence, graciousness and personal service are better measures for an authentic leader.
Starting as a young 18-year-old Navy pilot, Bush was engaged in the defense of freedom and the spread of liberty around the world. His career covered the arc of the great battles between Soviet-style communism and America's free, democratic republic form of government.
As president, Bush was the leader of the free world when communism came crashing to the ground. If ever there were a time for a U.S. president to spike the proverbial ball in the end zone, this was it. Any leader with an ego would have not only spiked the ball but would have danced on the grave of the defeated communist foes and started a global victory lap of epic proportions. President Bush showed restraint and humility instead.
Bush's top advisers urged and exhorted him to travel immediately to Europe and the crumbling wall of separation. The president responded with a "What do you want me to do, go over there and gloat?" He recognized that this extraordinary moment wasn't about his ego or ambition, it was about people breathing the fresh air of freedom for the first time. He also realized what the egocentric leader cannot — that such historic transformations are not about the moment, they are about building a movement and momentum for what comes next.
President Bush's best work was done behind the scenes to ensure stable paths and strong support structures for fledgling democracies and for reunification of long-divided nations. Humility wins with others where egocentric ambition wins over others. That difference drove George H.W. Bush.
During his run for president, Bush was tagged by his opposition and many in the national media as being a wimp. (The irony of labeling an extraordinary war hero as a wimp is hard to imagine, but it happened.) Had Bush been the typical braggadocio business or political leader, he would have swung back with vengeance. He instead responded with quiet confidence and dignity. He didn't waste time or effort or attention worrying about what others said about him.
Bush 41 lived by the mantra, "If you have to declare it — you aren't it!" He recognized that if you have to say you are not a wimp, you just might be. But, more importantly, he also realized that if you have to declare that you are the bold, brash leader, you really are not the leader. Leaders who declare by their actions who they are and what they believe are more to be believed than those who try to declare and thus attempt to convince you who they are and what they believe. Quiet confidence is the ultimate sign of both wisdom and strength.
Counterintuitively, Bush demonstrated to the nation that many of the greatest lessons in life are discovered in defeat rather than victory. George W. Patton is noted to have said that the real test in life is not how high you soar but by how high you bounce when you hit bottom. Bush 41 learned tough lessons when he lost the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan, but his graciousness and humility positioned him to become one of the most consequential vice presidents in our nation's history.
The roller-coaster ride that led from unprecedented popularity following the Gulf War to the stinging defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton could have sent Bush into a bitter and permanent tailspin. The gracious leader taught the nation an important leadership lesson in defeat.
The lesson began with the letter President Bush left for incoming President Clinton on inauguration day. It reads in part:
"There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice; but just don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
"You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
"Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you."
President Bush's use of the word "our" is insightful and significant. "You will be our president …" and "Your success now is our country's success."
Bush's graciousness in losing was the beginning of an unparalleled partnership that produced victory for victims of natural disasters around the world. No one, and I mean no one, would have put Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush as the ultimate tag-team partners to serve suffering people after natural disasters from Hurricane Katrina to devastation in Asia and beyond. Both men played important roles. Bush set the stage by choosing graciousness instead of bitterness in defeat.
For over a decade, presidents and presidential candidates from both parties have been consumed with a competition of who can have the biggest campaign rally. Presidents of both parties seem obsessed with the adrenaline rush of producing praise from raucous crowds in public events. Many other public officials have joined in the pursuit of applause rather than the hard work of public policy. Again, President Bush showed that service to individuals is more important than public praise.
In his 1988 convention speech, he said with typical self-deprecation, "I may sometimes be a little awkward, but there's nothing self-conscious in my love of country. I am a quiet man — but I hear the quiet people others don't." He was quiet enough to not only hear the quiet people, but he listened long enough to know what to do to help.
He was criticized for being out of touch with the common people during his re-election campaign. It may be true that he was focused too precisely on foreign affairs instead of domestic issues closer to home. But no one can dispute the attention he paid to individuals from every walk of life, particularly those who needed a little lift or encouragement. Thousands of handwritten notes stand as a testimony to his commitment to private service over public praise.
Many of those handwritten notes have re-emerged since his passing late Friday night, proving that private service outlasts the applause of public praise. Notes of all kinds are being reread and shared anew as part of the Bush 41 legacy in handwritten letters. Many Americans remember his Thousand Points of Light campaign. What most didn't see was that President Bush was sending out light and hope from the point of his pen on a daily basis.
George H.W. Bush was always a bit of a contrarian in his long public career — doing the unexpected or counterintuitive in order to better serve people and strengthen the nation. In doing so he showed that humility is strength, quiet confidence beats brashness, graciousness is better than bitterness in defeat, and private service outlasts public praise. These lessons and so many more will be points of light to a grateful nation for generations to come.