To be sure, before becoming chief executive, this son of President George Herbert Walker Bush, grandson of Senator Prescott Bush, and, for that matter, brother of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, had twice been elected governor of Texas. But by Bush’s own reckoning, his initial decision to run for governor, even to enter politics, was anything but obvious. Why? Because to understate it, his resume was thin, consisting of little more than brief (nepotistic) political experience, and light (nepotistic) managerial experience. Here is this particular “decision point” — to become a politician — in his own words: “My experiences on Dad’s campaigns and running the Rangers had sharpened my political, management, and communications skills. Marriage and family had broadened my perspective. And Dad was now out of politics. My initial disappointment at his loss gave way to a sense of liberation.... I was free to run on my own.”
Much has been made of George W. Bush’s overweening need to separate from, and prove himself to, George H.W. Bush. As the line “I was free to run on my own” seems to testify, this book does nothing to dispel the impression. Quite the opposite. The reader senses that on September 11, 2001, Bush the younger was further freed, however tragically, to make his own way, however tortured, and establish his own identity, however controversial. Bush himself writes as if his presidential life, his life as a man of consequence, began on that fateful day: “After 9/11, I developed a strategy to protect the country that came to be known as the Bush Doctrine.” It consisted of what he refers to as several “prongs,” of which the fourth and final is what he would have his legacy be. He calls it his “freedom agenda,” which was to “advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.” For a man who begins his memoir with the story of his quitting drinking — he writes of being prodded by his wife, Laura, who asked in a “calm, soothing voice” if he could remember the last day he didn’t have a drink — Bush came far, albeit with a mighty, mandatory assist from his fabled family.
I divide the leadership industry into two parts. One concerns learning about leadership, or leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry. And the other concerns learning how to lead, or leadership as a skill we should aspire to acquire. Life histories satisfy on both counts: They educate and elucidate, and they provide exemplars. Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is my candidate for the best book on leadership this year. But it is much more than that. It is an evergreen instruction on American history, a painterly portrait of a great man, and, to boot, a first-rate read.
- Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is the author and editor of many books, including Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2008) and The End of Leadership, which will be published in 2012 by HarperCollins.