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Bush and Zuckerberg: Leadership soul mates?

George W. Bush and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may not seem like they have a lot in common. One is a mid-60s former leader of the free world who famously called the Web "the Internets"; the other is a hoodie-wearing, twenty-something entrepreneur who runs one of the world's fastest growing technology companies.

But the two had plenty to talk about when Bush sat down with the Facebook founder to disucss his new book, "Decision Points." Sure, they both attended Ivy League colleges and elite prep schools in the Northeast. But like most leaders, they have also both endured withering criticism, found themselves amid unintended controversy, and faced tough decisions that forced their hands as leaders.

The interview, which took place at Facebook headquarters Monday and was streamed live on the company's Facebook page, was part of Bush's book tour for "Decision Points," which he made cracks about marketing. The interview ranged from foreign policy to education to jokes involving Vladimir Putin and his dog. The former president was charming and affable as he ribbed Zuckerberg, and was his usual unwavering self, confident in his decisions and neither unconcerned nor terribly introspective about his legacy.

But between the policy questions and the wisecracks, there was also plenty of discussion about leadership. Some of the wisdom Bush tried to impart to Zuckerberg--he did stop himself when he worried he was pandering--was mired in platitudes. "I believe in creative tension," said the man who famously referred to himself as the "decider." "You can't lead unless you know where you're going." "You've got to live life to the fullest."

Before the groans begin, Bush also offered up a few insightful comments worth revisiting. Say what you will about the 43rd president, but he was confident in his beliefs and defended them to the end--an attribute most people admire in their leaders. (Zuckerberg does: "Whether people disagree with your decisions, you've always stuck with what you thought was the right thing to do," he told Bush in admiration.)

When asked whether he ignored criticism too much and should have listened to and adapted to more of it, Bush pointed out "that's the difference between a successful leader or not"--deciding what critiques are nothing but noise and which ones deserve attention. And indeed, whether or not Bush was successful on that front, he articulates a true dividing line between strong and weak leaders quite well.

He also talked about the importance of making sure people could get face time with top leaders. "I always found that it's important to give people access as much as possible without totally stressing them out," he said. People want to feel like they have a chance to share their view or their concerns with top leaders, even if their ideas aren't used.

Bush was perhaps at his most introspective when it came to the question of the financial crisis, and his decision on whether or not to bail out the Wall Street banks. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson urged him to take action. "I could have gambled," he said, noting that his ideology made him lean away from bailing out a company that has failed. He decided to go with his advisers. "A lot of times when you're president, your hand is forced."

While Zuckerberg was quick to say "we've never had any decisions that big," he also thought "what you're saying rings true." Zuckerberg has been no stranger to making controversial decisions, either. With all the debate over privacy issues at the social-media giant, Zuckerberg acknowledged the difficulty of making choices when it may seem to some people like there's an obvious answer. "Whether it seems like there's a choice to other people or not, it often doesn't seem like there's a choice [to you]." Turns out the tech-savvy computer savant and the user of "the Internets" have plenty in common after all.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 30, 2010; 12:08 PM ET |  Category:  CEO watch , Corporate leadership , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Federal government leadership , Goal Setting , Government leadership , Humor , Personal Leadership Journey , Pop Culture , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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