December 4, 2007

"Bushed"--Notes on a leader

Reporting on Bush in the Washington Post, Allen & Broder (2004) noted that “White House aides describe a president who gathers a small circle of trusted advisers, listens to brief debates and then offers swift, gut-based solutions to problems”. Gergen concurs, writing that Bush “takes a minimalist, big-picture approach to learning about an issue…he [asks] that memos be kept to two pages or less. He has said publicly that he rarely reads newspapers and relies on his staff to summarize the news for him” (2003).

Although Bush has a relatively small set of advisers and any dissenting voices are effectively muffled (Allen & Broder, 2004) Woodward reports that “there is an aspect of baseball-coach, even fraternity-brother urgency in Bush” during potentially divisive meetings of the National Security Council (2002, 261). Writing about President Bush’s leadership style in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bob Woodward notes that “He wanted action, solution. Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, rarely looking back, scoffing at—even ridiculing—doubt and anything less than 100 percent commitment” (2002, 256). This behaviour can achieve great short-term results but can hinder a leader over the long term, as I believe has happened to George W. Bush. As Gergen warns , “closed administrations tend to provide incomplete or misleading information to the public; their accountability suffers” (2003).

Less than a month after the September 11 attacks, Karl Rove, then Senior Adviser to the President, attempted to report to Bush his analysis of the latest polling data, which was showing the President at unprecedented 90-percent approval. Bush retorted, “Don’t waste my time with it…My job is not to worry about the political consequences, and I don’t” (Woodward, 2002, 206). Writing in 2003, Gergen’s assessment of Bush’s leadership was that “it seems doubtful that he will repeat the precipitous, 60-point drop of his father: his conservative base is too strong and loyal for that”. Clearly, Bush should have been more interested: three recent November polls show that his public approval rating sits at roughly 33 percent (Angus Reid Global Monitor, 2007). Surely the Latin expression Vox populi, vox dei was never more ironically prescient.

It is my contention that Mr Bush is doomed to be a poor leader, as he has consistently positioned himself as "the decider" beyond reproach. I believe that having little to no self-awareness and self-correction are signs of a weak leader. While a leader should have a strong will and vision, bravado and machismo are the stuff of despots and b-movie villains.

Mr Bush's actions have reflected an apparent disdain for those he is supposed to lead. He has repeatedly removed members of his inner leadership team who have questioned him or provided alternative points of view. Most damaging, in my assessment, has been his stark, binary view of the complex geopolitical context of his presidency. While propaganda such as "axis of evil" and "you're either with us or against us" was most compelling rhetoric that played well to a citizenry pumped with fear, it has ultimately failed him as a basis for developing his foreign policy, the supposedly golden face of his political leadership coin.

Allen, Mike & Broder, D. (2004). “Bush's Leadership Style: Decisive or Simplistic?”. Retrieved from November 27, 2007.

Angus Reid Global Monitor. (2007).“Most Americans Disapprove of President Bush”. Retrieved from November 27, 2007.

Gergen, David. (2003). “Leadership in the Bush White House”. Retrieved from November 27, 2007.

Woodward, Bob. (2002). Bush at War. Simon & Schuster: New York.

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