On the final day of the SHRM 2022 conference in New Orleans, the CEO of SHRM Johnny C. Taylor Jr. interviewed the 43rd President of the United States George W Bush in front of 20,000 human resource professionals. This was an incredible experience and one I will never forget, we were not allowed to take photos or video, not even take written notes. The intimidating secret service personnel were scattered throughout, many looking intimidatingly straight back at the audience… this was certainly a keynote with a difference!

‘People look to leaders to lead’

The quote ‘People look to leaders to lead’ has inspired… but also terrified me throughout my life. I became a manager very early in my career, have led large corporate teams, currently an external HR business and am a father of three magnificent young men. I believe we are all leaders and have the ability to lead and influence. I think of this quote often and am always looking to be a better leader.

The top five leadership lessons I learnt from listening to George W Bush:

  1. Poise (calm): He spoke of the moment one of his advisors whispered into his ear that a plane had collided with a tower of the World Trade Centre. I clearly remember the footage of George W Bush reading a book to some children as this happened and he went back to reading as he processed the situation. Then a plane hit tower two and subsequently the Pentagon. His thought after tower one were ‘This is a tragic accident’, tower two; ‘We are under attack’ and finally the Pentagon; ‘We are at war’. He was being filmed throughout, had minimal time to prepare a response, but stepped in front of the world’s media to address the nation before being whisked away on Airforce One. He knew he was in the spotlight and the nation would be looking to him, he didn’t panic but instead remained calm and showed incredible poise.

‘Breathe, control emotion, calm your mind and body and deeply consider the impact of your next action, while in the spotlight or under extreme pressure’

  1. His respect for women: George W Bush was the only other president to have his father alive while in office (something very special when you consider he was the 41st President of the United States of America). Johnny C. Taylor Jr. asked him about his father’s relationship and mentorship, before moving on to another topic. He interrupted and said, ‘You didn’t ask about my mother Johnny?’ He bought the conversation back to how incredible she was and her amazing wit she showed on her death bed. He knew the end was near and called her, she said you are my favourite son… on the phone, referring to the others being bedside. He spoke with warmth and love about his wife Laura and how he learnt that Abraham Lincoln’s wife was miserable and lonely during her Whitehouse years, and he wouldn’t allow this to happen to Laura. He authentically spoke of his admiration of Condoleezza Rice, referring to her as ‘Condie’ on numerous occasions. He was crystal clear that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan was a major humanitarian issue as the women would again be treated inexcusably. 

‘Authentic empathy, care, warmth, and professional respect for all humans’

  1. Humility: He spoke of the importance of asking questions, seeking opinions and learning from the great leaders across the world. Leadership is not about the individual; it is about collaboration and intent. At one stage Johnny C. Taylor Jr. got a little over excited and said you were the leader of the world and George W Bush cut him off and replied, ‘no Johnny, I was the leader of the United States of America, not the world’. He spoke about treating people with respect, never being late for a meeting regardless of who you are and that the best leaders serve and don’t need to be the centre of attention. 

‘The power of asking, listening, and collaborating because no one individual has all the answers’

  1. Lifelong learning: Reflecting on the recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, he warned that we must not let ‘Time dull the memories’ of the pain, emotion and unrest following 911 changed the world and these lessons mustn’t be forgotten. He spoke of studying the leadership of Abraham Lincoln intensely while in office and the need to keep developing his leadership skills. He discussed his love for the Dalai Lama and why we should be very wary of world leaders like Putin with a chip on their shoulders. George W Bush spoke of his admiration of the leadership of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who he referred to as the Winston Churchill of our time. I was privileged to spend time with Sir Richard Branson on Necker Island a few years ago and I saw first-hand how curious he was to learn, he took notes relentlessly and continually asked probing questions. It is no coincidence that the great leaders are lifelong learners who unapologetically hone their craft and never rest on their laurels!

‘The relentless pursuit of knowledge, self-growth and lessons, ensuring you are a better leader than you were yesterday’

  1. Charisma (likeability): I often refer to the ability to build rapport and be likeable as a superpower in Leadership and George W Bush had this in spades! All the leaders I have looked up to are charismatic, fun, cheeky and likeable. They subconsciously bring you in and invite you to follow them without trying and from the minute George W Bush graced the stage, this was evident. Relationships are critical in all forms of business and life and George W Bush spoke of the great world leaders he enjoyed working with globally like John Howard in Australia and Tony Blair in the UK. Be likeable, fun, charismatic and build relationships that last. His smart wit and cheeky nature, meant he controlled the interview and which path it would take, often going off on extremely interesting (and controversial) tangents and cheekily finishing his stories with ‘Chew on that Johnny’ knowing he had likely pushed the boundaries! Not one person in the massive conference centre wanted it to finish.

‘To be likeable, interesting, able to build rapport quickly and foster powerful long-term relationships’

The great leaders are not about their own glory, they understand they are there to serve, lead by example, collaborate and influence. 

Really listening to the now 75-year-old George W Bush with no distractions of phones or taking notes was a special experience. I was annoyed when there was applause throughout because we lost valuable minutes to hear him speak and soak in the wisdom. 

I had no expectations of this session but walked away in awe of one of the greatest leaders I think the world has seen. A special way to close out an amazing human resources conference where the lessons have been priceless and there are many more still marinating! 

I am a better leader for the experience!

Author: Ben Watts
Ben is a veteran in the HR space- a forward-thinking leader specialising in functional business structures and people performance techniques. With twenty years’ experience managing large ASX listed corporates across multiple industries, Ben adds depth and expertise to our clients' strategy solutions, genuinely providing a commercial result for their investment.