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Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

What Did I See In Him?

Sometimes the best that can be said of a leader is that he or she has functioned as a cautionary tale, the kind of experience that teaches an important lesson so that, in the immortal words of The Who, "we don't get fooled again." So let it be with George W. Bush. I know; I speak from personal experience.

Prior to the 2000 presidential election I interviewed then-Governor Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore back-to-back for Fast Company magazine. I flew with Governor Bush when he went to give a speech, interviewing him in the first-class cabin of his campaign plane; then I went to New York and interviewed Vice President Gore at a hotel where he'd set up camp prior to the Democratic convention. Everything prior to the interviews had prepared me to give points to Gore and doubt Bush's standing for the job of President; I came away more impressed with Bush than with Gore , convinced that Bush would win the election and that he would acquit himself as a reasonable and credible President.

What did I see in Bush? Many of the qualities that were commented on by others in that first election. He was clearly a man who was "comfortable in his own skin." Talking with him was a conversation, not a monologue. He was happy to indulge in humorous exchanges, and when it came time for him to offer his views on the questions I was asking, I found him direct, clear, and thoughtful. Having spent more than my share of time with political leaders, I was primed to detect distortions, ego-trips, and general self-indulgent expressions. Bush had none of that. He came across as a man who knew who he was, and didn't need to engage in any mind games to come across as someone he wasn't. Later, in the campaign, this quality turned into the observation offered by the press in general that Bush was someone "you'd want to have a beer with." I think it was more than that, although like-ability is a quality that, we've seen, serves candidates well, even if they're like-able enough.

I think what people sensed in Bush--what I sensed when I sat with him--was a fundamental quality of being at peace with himself. We've all seen the opposite quality in leaders--think Richard Nixon, for example--where they are so ill-at-ease that you wonder, if they don't trust themselves as who they are, why should I? Bush seemed to trust himself, to reduce rather than increase the level of discomfort in his presence, and that quality of comfort made me--and the American voters--more comfortable with him.

The second thing I found was that, far from his reputation as someone who wasn't too bright, Bush had a quick and agile mind. A number of the questions I asked him were designed to see how he made connections: Could he see the link between economic security and national security, for instance? When I listened to his answers, I was impressed that he could. No, he wasn't talking grand economic theory. And he wouldn't win any eloquence awards. But he saw how the world worked and how you could get generate a strategy by linking ideas across categories. He saw patterns and put the pieces together, which was something his critics even then didn't give him credit for.

Of course, it turns out that these two attributes are necessary but not sufficient for a leader to discharge the office of the president. But they still seem to me to be valid tests that we can and should use to assess the individuals who present themselves for position of trust and responsibility. If they pass those tests, then we can screen them for things like their political philosophy and values, their qualities as listeners and synthesizers of changing information, and their core beliefs about what America needs to stand for in times of great turbulence and rapid change. Unfortunately, I didn't ask Bush those questions eight years ago.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  January 7, 2009; 2:57 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: If Nothing Else, We've Been Safe | Next: Tough Talk -- More Needed


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Mr. Webber, you hardly have sole responsibility for our American eight year debacle, but holy cow, what a feeble response to your own small contribution. Every landlord knows background research is imperative before handing over his property to someone else. Yet the US handed over our rights, safety, and futures to a jolly good fellow some of the guys would like to have a beer with? Think of the people who read your words and, basically, fell for your poor judgement.
Now, I never met Mr. Bush personally, but I have seldom seen a person over the age of 15 who is less comfortable in his own skin. He radiates sophomoric bragodoccio (sp?) and defensiveness.
No, you didn't just fail to ask the right questions -- that's a dog ate my paper excuse -- you failed to develop enough of a complete picture to enable you to make a sound judgement. And you helped to promote a dog-ate-my-paper president.

Posted by: nycexpat | January 13, 2009 5:07 PM
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Unfortunately, I was not smart enough to ask the right questions eight years ago. Bush was smart, intelligent, etc., etc., but I was not. So believe me now when I tell you that I am smart. Bush should have known, e.g. no weapons of mass, even though all intel said yes, but who was I, just an award-winning, nationally-recognized journalist and author who didn't ask the right questions. BUT BOY WE SURE LEARNED AND REALLY GRILLED THAT OBAMA GUY, DIDN'T WE??!!!!!!!

Posted by: chatard | January 13, 2009 10:02 AM
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Unfortunately, I saw through Bush in 2000. No one seemed concerned about the alcohol and the less than stable work history prior to his stint as governor...throw in the cavalier avoidance of risk during the Viet Nam conflict and mix it with the braggardly manner in which he proclaims that he was a 'C' student--viola you have a walking, talking Molotov cocktail ready to burn this nation down.

Posted by: franksonya | January 13, 2009 3:29 AM
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What? Webber, you write for a living? Bush was the village idiot governor of my state for 6 years and before that managing owner of a perennial baseball loser. Millions of us in Texas tried to warn the rest of the country what a disaster this guy could make of America. He turned out to be a thousand times worse. If you had only done your research, you would've known this then. You share responsibility with all the media that facilitated him and portrayed him well and influenced others to vote for him.

Posted by: SpaceCity | January 10, 2009 4:28 AM
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