2008 – Retrospectives – HBS & The US Presidency

As Harvard MBAs, with President Bush leaving office in just under two months, this may be a time to turn more introspective – what (if anything) would you have done differently?

At Harvard Business School, “we educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Yet, our campus presents no tangible reminder of the graduate who has made the most difference in the world out of the thousands to walk the halls of Spangler Hall: George W. Bush.

There is no portrait. No engraved bronze plaque. No dedicated park bench. No building bearing his name. No George W. Bush LEAD case. In fact, no one I have spoken with for this article has any knowledge of President Bush even returning to campus since graduation. There seems to be a lack of connection between our community and the only President in history with an MBA on his resume. Is it our doing? Is it his? But more importantly, can we detach ourselves from our rooted political persuasions to try to learn something from a man who for all intents and purposes – is one of our own?

It is no secret that when Bush decided to enter the politics of Texas and the south in the 1970s, his Ivy-league sheepskins from Yale and Harvard became liabilities. Bush learned this hard reality in 1977 after he was “out Christianed and out-Texaned” in a close race for the House of Representatives with a Conservative Democrat. It took him until 1994 to shape himself into a man who stood for education improvement, welfare reform, and crime reduction, and was worthy of the Lone Star State Governor’s office.

His even more improbable win of the 2000 Presidential election by a razor-thin margin catapulted him to the world stage, and it was time for a New England reconciliation – with New Haven, at least. In 2001, President Bush fresh from the completion of the “first 100 days in office test” travelled to Yale to deliver the speech for his alma mater’s 300th commencement, and re-establish the New England elite connection that had contributed to his first political defeat almost a quarter-century earlier. Despite ongoing protest from the audience over things like the Kyoto Protocol, President Bush proclaimed, “In my time, they spoke of the ‘Yale man.’ I was really never sure what that was, but I do think that I’m a better man because of Yale.”

His newfound commitment to Yale went beyond accepting an honorary degree. In 2003, he invited over 950 members of the Yale class of 1968 to the White House for the 35th Reunion. White House invitations to the HBS class of 1975 may have been lost in the mail, but that doesn’t mean that President Bush did not appreciate his MBA education. In his 1999 book, A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House, the President writes briefly of his experience here, and his reasons for applying. In his own words, “[the Harvard Application] forced me to think about what I had accomplished and what I hoped to achieve. I had learned to fly jets and acquired a good education; I had not yet settled on a path in life.”

Within two years of graduation he had completed his first political campaign. Something seems to have clicked for him in business school, and it is quite possible that he left behind his fraternity days of hanging off football goal-posts and chugging Jack Daniels to hone a world view and his leadership playbook while in Cambridge. But beyond the quick glance at HBS in his book, and his Title of “President of the United States of America” on the Alumni Navigator, you might not even know that he had gone here.

But let’s not cast all the blame on him. HBS seems to have done little to reach out to its former student either. In fact, the only documentation I was able to find of HBS establishing a connection to President Bush was an open letter to the President on October 4th, 2004, which outlined how his economic policies were taking the country in the wrong direction. The letter, started by several members of the HBS BGIE faculty was eventually signed by 169 business-school professors (both from HBS and other schools), and included two Nobel Laureates, Robert Merton and William Sharpe on the list of signatures. There was a reasonable level of press generated around the letter, yet it never garnered a White House response.

Indeed, discussion about President Bush at HBS instinctively gravitates towards either silence or negativity, and there are many justifiable reasons for this. As John Coleman (OJ), a self-described Conservative explains, “his administration, at times, has had difficulty working with Congress, managing the war, communicating with the public at home and abroad, executing on domestic policy, and selecting and running a cabinet. Sensitivity to his perceived management failures (as separate from policy failures) must be particularly acute at the school that trained him.”

As Harvard MBAs, with President Bush leaving office in just under two months, this may be a time to turn more introspective – what (if anything) would you have done differently if you were in his shoes? Again from his book: “I hadn’t gone to business school to work my way up the corporate ladder. I wanted to be my own boss; Harvard gave me the tools to do so.” What exactly are the HBS tools that prepare one for the ultimate leadership position?

As Professor Richard Tedlow explained, “My view of the MBA skill-set is that it includes asking probing and intelligent questions and challenging others without being abusive or abrasive. As a professor here, that is the goal in my classes. This approach is not disrespectful, because it is not done disrespectfully. I don’t believe that I have seen the HBS cast of mind and approach to solving problems deployed in this administration.” A recent HBS poll seems to suggest that the HBS student body supports this reasoning, with President Bush scoring a 2.0 out of 5 in terms of whether or not he effectively embraced the MBA skill-set.

However, is our general condemnation of the Bush Presidency a result of careful analysis born out of logical debate, or are we just clinging to our political guns? A Harbus poll conducted right before the 2008 election indicated that close to 80% of the student body would vote for Barack Obama – surely not indicative of the 53% of the popular vote Obama received. Eric Hart (OA), a member of the HBS Republican community elaborated, “We are part of a historically liberal university located in the heart of Boston, the capital of America’s most liberal state. Of course it is a liberal campus. It goes with the territory.”

If we are to learn from President Bush, it will most likely be the Republican student body that can help move the debate – but that can only happen if we learn how to “respectfully disagree” about politics. As Mina Nguyen (OA), Co-President of the HBS Republican Club explained, “it is always difficult to voice an unpopular view against a majority. On campus, people are willing to have polite conversations about business topics, but any mention of the President is often followed by hateful and mean-spirited words, which makes it impossible to have a conversation.”

The classroom is not necessarily the right entry-point for a discussion, as Lou Wells, Professor of International Management at HBS, explained: “Students should be able to make links, which is probably easier through these historical cases than in direct discussion of the current administration, where ideology and strong held initial views might interfere with discussions.”

I must concede that it may be too early for a George W. Bush LEAD case, but will the impression of President Bush at HBS forever remain – out of sight, out of mind?

Sure, George Bush is unpopular now – but history is not without nuance. As Brian Kenny, HBS’ Chief Marketing and Communications Officer mentioned, “Despite what people may think of his politics, I believe having a two term president as an alum enhances the reputation of the school. He may not be popular at this moment but many Presidents left office with low ratings only to be lauded years later.” One such example would be Harry Truman, whose Presidency was characterized by the climax of World War II and his use of the atomic bomb on Japan and ended with him leaving office with a 22% approval rating. In 2005, Wall Street journal poll found him to be the seventh most popular President in United States history.

I am not saying that in 50 years George W. Bush will join the ranks of James Madison. In fact, it is possible that he will go down as the most unpopular Presidents in history. Regardless, one day, someone will ask – is this what happens when HBS graduates lead the world?

George W. Bush was known as the “decider,” and the case method is all about using imperfect information to make real-world decisions. Someone might argue that George W. Bush’ Presidency reflects many elements of LEAD. He is certainly a man who sticks to his personal values, as first demonstrated through his Compassionate Conservative message in 2000. He may have delegated the most power of any President in history (i.e., to Dick Cheney), which we have been taught an effective leader must do, and he also has been successful at creating a vision (e.g., Democracy in Iraq) and aligning others with it.

George W. Bush is a President who has generally supported free market capitalism, trickle-down economics, and free trade – all things we have learned in Finance, and BGIE. While I don’t advocate it, the Rovian tactic of dividing the electorate through wedge issues (e.g., abortion) was a great example of the Strategy concept of deciding to serve some markets, and not others. And there is maybe no better marketing slogan than “the war on terror.”

Of course, any of these arguments could be turned on its head through an informed debate. With the prudence that comes with time, the world may grow to understand George W. Bush in a different light as that debate plays out. Or it may not.

But in the long run, we’re all dead. So at this moment, we owe it to ourselves to elevate discussion about his Presidency to go beyond Will Ferrell SNL skits and the liberties the President takes with the English language. If we really believe that George W. Bush failed as President, then we as an academic community that trained him must own up to it, and become a true “learning organization” that uses the lessons of mistakes to help define the way that we approach future challenges.

Let’s not just ignore the elephant in the room.Maybe it’s time to invite him back to Cambridge.

December 8, 2008
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