Decision Points

Over the holidays I read President George W. Bush’s new book, “Decision Points” (497 pages, Crown Publishers, ISBN 978-0-307-59061-9). The book chronicles his years in the White House and the tough decisions he grappled with. His intention was to go beyond just writing another autobiography, but to also explain how he arrived at certain key decisions. By doing so, he gives us a rare glimpse of the complicated issues a U.S. President faces and the decision making process he used to address them, something that is normally delegated to historians to ponder years afterward.

As a management consultant, I found this book particularly intriguing and wanted to try and define Bush’s style of management. To do so, I decided to test it against our “Bryce Management Analysis” feature on our corporate web site, a tool designed to analyze and define a particular management personality based on a person’s responses to a series of questions posed to him. From this, we can deduce a person’s management characteristics regarding such things as leadership, style, corporate culture, environmental considerations, and results orientation. After I finished the President’s book, I answered the questions on his behalf and produced the following analysis. Please keep in mind I inputted responses based on Bush’s own personal perspective as explained in the book. In other words, it is produced solely from his perspective and not others such as members of the media, political rivals, or even other friends, family, or colleagues. What follows below is the analysis produced from our tool along with supplemental comments pertaining to each section.

ANALYZER: “In terms of LEADERSHIP, it appears you are properly articulating your goals and priorities with your workers. You appear to be in tune with the needs of your business and, as such, I suspect your goals and objectives are synchronized with the business. It appears you have the necessary leadership skills to lead your people.”

The American public will be surprised to learn how spiritual the President was and how his beliefs guided him throughout his presidency. From this, he showed great empathy for the people serving him, particularly the troops and victims of catastrophes. He wrote, “I felt it was my responsibility to comfort those who had lost a loved one” (pg 204). In turn, Bush drew his strength and resolve from the people he was trying to comfort.

Throughout the book, Bush reveals his frailties as a human-being and the mistakes he has made. He would be the first to admit he is certainly not perfect, just a human-being trying hard to do what is right, which is all we can ask of any manager.

When he was convinced of the necessity for doing something, he doggedly pursued it. His persistence created a sense of urgency among his people. He would listen to arguments from all sides before forming a decision, but after it had been made, there was no second-guessing.

Bush was also smart enough to know his limitations and when he didn’t know the right course of action to pursue, relied on the advice of others. To illustrate, in discussing military operations in Iraq he wrote, “I did not try to manage the logistics or the tactical decisions. My instinct was to trust the judgment of the military leadership. They were the trained professionals;…” (pg 195).

A U.S. President must inevitably react to events outside of his control. In Bush’s case, it was 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession of 2008. To his credit though, he understood the need for being more proactive than reactive even if it meant sharp criticism from the media and his political opponents. For example, in describing his approach to combating terrorism he wrote, “We needed to disrupt attacks before they happened, not just investigate them after they took place” (pg 145). He goes on to write, “From the beginning, I knew the public reaction to my decisions would be colored by whether there was another attack. If none happened, whatever I did would probably look like an overreaction. If we were attacked again, people would demand to know why I hadn’t done more. That is the nature of the presidency. Perceptions are shaped by the clarity of hindsight. In the moment of decision, you don’t have that advantage” (pg 180).

Bush met frequently with his team to make sure everyone was operating on the same page. Communications and consistency were important to him, as was simple teamwork. In describing his loss in the New Hampshire primary to John McCain he explains, “The conventional playbook called for me to fire a few people and claim a fresh start. I decided to go in the opposite direction. I got the senior staff together and told them I refused to chuck anyone overboard to satisfy the loud voices on TV. One person deserved blame, and that was me. Win or lose, we would finish this race as a team” (pg 72).

These earmarks caused me to conclude he possessed good leadership skills; he was a principled man, drew strength from his people and constituents, believed in being proactive as opposed to reactive (he clearly understood the difference between complacency and action), promoted the concept of teamwork over individual achievement, and stressed the need for his people to perform their duties in a consistent manner. Despite all of this, mistakes were still made and he frequently took the blame as opposed to his people (a trait shared by other presidents, particularly Lincoln). Throughout the book he openly admits when his team got something wrong. He would then take the blame himself as opposed to his underlings, thereby shielding his people and creating a sense of trust and loyalty.

ANALYZER: “In terms of MANAGEMENT STYLE, your responses indicate a Theory Y form of management with some leaning towards Theory Z. This means you are willing to delegate responsibility and empower your workers to do the job they are assigned. I also suspect you have a good rapport with your workers and are inclined to trust them. It also sounds like they are beginning to act like a team as opposed to a group of individuals.”

As mentioned, Bush knew his limitations and leaned on the advice of people he trusted. There is no evidence that he micromanaged anyone, but created an esprit de corps whereby his people were charged with assigned tasks and given a certain level of power to make their own decisions. It was definitely a “bottom-up” approach where Bush empowered his people and they, in turn, reported to him on progress and asked his advice on key decisions.

This meant Bush was careful in his selection of people to serve key positions surrounding him. A person’s sense of integrity, honor and trustworthiness was critical. The president would stand with you through thick and thin so long as you maintained your integrity, but if you deviated, he would rightfully abandon you. He would also look for team players and stressed the need for it. As he wrote, “I started each personnel decision by defining the job description and the criteria for the ideal candidate. I directed a wide search and considered a diverse range of options. For major appointments, I interviewed candidates face to face. I used my time to gauge character and personality. I was looking for integrity, competence, selflessness, and an ability to handle pressure. I always liked people with a sense of humor, a sign of modesty and awareness” (pg 66). Later in the book he wrote, “But as someone who valued personal diplomacy, I put a high premium on trust. Once that trust was violated, it was hard to have a constructive relationship again” (pg 234).

There are clear signs in the book that Bush understood the necessity of building consensus among his people (an essential element of Theory Z management). As an example, “I laid out a process for making it (a complex decision). I would clarify my guiding principles, listen to experts on all sides of the debate, reach a tentative conclusion, and run it past knowledgeable people. After finalizing a decision, I would explain it to the American people” (pgs 110-111).

Bush used a common technique for gathering information and testing his subordinates, “I learn best by asking questions. In some cases, I probe to understand a complex issue. Other times, I deploy questions as a way to test my briefers’ knowledge. If they cannot answer concisely and in plain English, it raises a red flag that they may not fully grasp the subject” (pg 109). “Explaining my decision would be almost as important as making it” (pg 118).

ANALYZER: “In terms of CORPORATE CULTURE, it sounds like you have a very professional working environment, a place that workers are proud to work at and call home. It also sounds like you have been successful in terms of instilling some very positive work habits. In addition, it appears you have reached a homogeneous working environment where everyone is working in a concerted manner.”

From the book, it is rather obvious the president clearly understood the need for defining and controlling the corporate culture. The physical appearance of his offices were used to convey certain subliminal messages and signals, both in Texas when he was governor and the White House. He was also mindful of the power of dress and decorum. There was a time and place for conducting the business of state and a time to relax. Rarely were the two ever confused inappropriately.

Being punctual and organized were considered two important elements of the culture. To illustrate, it was well known the president would order the doors to cabinet meetings closed and locked when they were scheduled to begin. He wrote, “Timeliness is important to make sure an organization does not get sloppy” (pg 109). As a result, the Executive Branch ran on time.

ANALYZER: “In terms of other environmental considerations, it sounds like you may have to tighten some things up, such as minimizing distractions, and improving the workers’ skills and proficiencies. It may also be time to reevaluate and update your working standards.”

This became rather obvious after 9-11, Katrina, and the Great Recession, where new tactics and new thinking was required to remedy problems.

Organizationally, the size of the executive branch begs the issue as to whether it can be effectively managed by any one person. Because of the calamities he faced in office, President Bush was forced to make changes in the organization structure. Perhaps the most visible indication of this was the creation of Homeland Security which consolidated several organizations under one roof. This may be fine for pacifying the moment, but the federal government still needs to be flattened as evidenced by the recent report of the Debt Reduction Commission, not simply due to economics, but to improve communications, productivity, and manageability, thereby making it more responsive to the needs of the country. It could very well benefit from some Enterprise Engineering as I have described in the past.

ANALYZER: “In terms of RESULTS ORIENTATION, it appears you have some work ahead of you in terms of raising the consciousness of your workers in regard to quality and satisfying the customer. It also sounds like you might have a few workers who watch the clock as opposed to deliverables. Try holding some meetings with your workers to discuss these problems and set them on the right path. You want to nip such behavior early so that it doesn’t fester and become worse.”

The first sentence really caught my attention. As we all know, the president’s approval ratings were high in his first term, and dismally low by the end of his second. A lot of this is due to his inability to dispel misconceptions and falsehoods about his actions and connect with his constituents.

Early in his first term, Bush met with many Congressmen on both sides of the aisle to develop a rapport with them. So much so, he was accused of conducting “the biggest charm offensive of any modern chief executive.” This worked fine initially, but as his second presidential election approached, his detractors fought him relentlessly, thereby adding to the gridlock of Washington. Consequently, Bush had to spend an inordinate amount of time answering his critics and opponents which distracted him from conducting the business of his office. As he wrote, “The toxic atmosphere in American politics discourages good people from running for office” (pg 121).

Despite such distractions, he persevered; “The shrill debate never affected my decisions. I read a lot of history, and I was struck by how many presidents had endured harsh criticism. The measure of their character, and often their success, was how they responded. Those who based decisions on principle, not some snapshot of public opinion, were often vindicated over time” (pg 121). He goes on to say, “I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I knew there would be tough days. Self-pity is a pathetic quality in a leader. It sends such demoralizing signals to the team and the country. As well, I was comforted by my conviction that the Good Lord wouldn’t give a believer a burden he couldn’t handle” (pg 459).

One other Bush characteristic caught my attention which is not directly related to management but I think is noteworthy. Based on his narratives in the book, it was obvious to me the president possessed a profound belief in the goodness of America and the principles on which it is based. Like Churchill and Reagan before him, Bush saw Democracy as a vehicle for combating terrorism and securing peace. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world… So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” (pg 396, from 2005 inauguration speech).


Some will interpret “Decision Points” as nothing more than a rationalization for his failures. I didn’t. I found it an intriguing explanation of how he formulated decisions. If his writings are correct, he has done the American public a great service as we only have a rudimentary understanding of what actually goes on in the White House. Here, Bush gives us a front row seat in terms we can all understand.

I have given the president some rather high marks for his management style. His only weakness was his inability to control the external influences facing his administration. By this I do not mean just world events, but answering his critics, the media spin doctors, and communicating with his constituents. This gnawed away at his credibility and forced him to be distracted from tending to the business of state. Then again, there are not too many of us who can focus on their job when they are constantly under attack. Fortunately, Bush had some rather thick skin and took it all in stride graciously.

From Bush’s perspective, he always tried to do what was pragmatic and fair, not necessarily in accordance with the dogma of his political party. Based on his narrative, I have no reason not to believe him. I’m sure others will, but before finding him guilty I would suggest you read his book first. He makes some pretty compelling arguments. Regardless of your political persuasion, as a consultant, I heartily recommend this book as a management read. True, the book has historical significance, but I find it a fascinating first hand account of the decision making process of the Manager-In-Chief.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Copyright © 2011 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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