Bush, Obama and the Mythology of Leadership

The real power of leadership may be held in the system. And followers must hold the leader accountable.

THE SMALL MOUNTAIN OF rubble had been Manhattan’s two tallest buildings, a silhouette that made New York’s skyline unmistakable. The twin towers also stood as a proxy for American power, so their fall echoed the sound of cataclysm in American history.

Three days later, on September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush climbed atop that small mountain and, hugging a retired fireman and handed a megaphone, searched for – and eventually found – the words to rally a nation in the wake of unprecedented tragedy.

“I can hear you, the world hears you, and soon the people who knocked these buildings down will hear us all!”

The crowd resounded in approving applause, and his escalating 3-part rhetoric became a famous cry of empathy, inspiration, and retribution. For those at the base of the mound of debris, it was a soaring siren of leadership.

But that was not how it started.

In researching our book “Leaders: Myth and Reality” (with co-authors Stan McChrystal and Jason Mangone), I interviewed President Bush and asked him about this now-iconic moment, and he confided that it had surprised him. The dust had scarcely settled over downtown Manhattan, and Bush arrived without a script, sound system or tele-prompters. Making do, Bush started by offering a few unscripted points with a megaphone, such as “America stands with you on bended knee.” Nonetheless, the president struggled to be heard and connect with his audience.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a cascade of happenstance unfolded. Someone in the crowd yelled out earnestly, “George, we can’t hear you,” capturing Bush’s attention. Instinctively, the president offered a simple but direct response through the megaphone: “I can hear you!”

It was at that moment that the crowd erupted – for the first time – in a cheering applause. President Bush recalled feeling that he was “surfing the psychology of the crowd.” Discussing this moment in hindsight, it was less important that they couldn’t hear him – what now mattered more was that they were being heard. The crescendo of their applause reflected the arrival of leadership, catalyzed simply by a leader becoming responsive to his context.

Nearly a decade after President Bush climbed up that mountain of rubble to rally a nation to war, his successor climbed down a massive red-carpeted stairwell with hopes of winding that war down. On May 6, 2011, President Barack Obama debarked Air Force One and was greeted by Admiral Bill McRaven on the tarmac at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. McRaven had been leading the nation’s counter-terrorism war, and the president’s trip was a discrete visit to receive a briefing on a not-so-discrete mission: the raid that killed Bin Laden.

Then a member of the president’s staff, I accompanied him on the trip and looked on from the tarmac as the pair of men stepped into the president’s over-sized limo for the short ride to the facility where the president presented awards to those who conducted the mission. Several dozen SEALs were seated in rows of folding chairs on the right side of the room, while the Army helicopter crews that flew the mission sat in rows to their left. After the ceremony was complete, a smaller group of operators, military leaders and the president’s staff moved to a side room where a mock-up “sand table” of the target “objective,” bin Laden’s hideout, had been arranged for the debrief.

<strong>We often think of leadership as simply what leaders do. In reality, leadership is driven by context and followers as much as it is delivered by leaders.</strong>

Flying back to DC later that evening, I asked the president for his reflections, many of which surprised me. For instance, the president was struck by the fact that few of the operators looked like what you might expect from Hollywood central casting. The president also took note that the team leader did not dominate the debrief. Rather, when given the floor, the team leader stepped back and said simply: “Mr. President, the team will now debrief you,” allowing others to explain, as a collective, what they had done.

It was striking to the world’s most powerful leader because it was to see another leader resist the irresistible. Even for a first-tier special operations officer, this kind of opportunity was beyond once in a lifetime. And yet, he relinquished the spotlight all the same.

This kind of approach is often referred to as “servant leadership,” wherein leaders achieve results by putting their people first. Humble leaders are especially effective by leveraging the raw power of intrinsic motivation, letting people own their decisions and actions, which drives both productivity and creativity. And while it is known to be effective, servant leadership is relatively rare, and it is often misunderstood.

For instance, where servant leadership does occur within military special operations teams, it is not for the reasons one might assume. It is not because it is generous, or even because it is effective. The explanation is far simpler – it is the approach tolerated by the followers.

I once caught up with the SEAL team leader who led the mission and whose muted debrief style had been memorable to the president that day. I asked him why and how he chose his leadership style. Interestingly, he didn’t point to any book he had read, or to a leadership course he had taken. Rather, his response was simply to ask “how else would you lead a team like that?” In other words, and perhaps surprising to outsiders, authoritarian SEAL leaders don’t last long.

Leadership studies often emphasize this connection between servant leadership and high-performing teams, but they often confuse the direction of causation. Servant leaders may yield high-performing teams, but the converse is equally the case: high-performing teams often demand servant-styled leaders.