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A Legacy of Leadership: Remembering the Late 41st President

The following article originally appeared in the February newsletter to clients of FMI Corporation.  Reprinted with permission.

Texans, particularly Houstonians, remember with gratitude that the 41st president of the United States chose to make Texas, and ultimately Houston, his adopted home.  This remarkable leader and human being died November 30, 2018, at the age of 94.  He leaves a legacy of leadership, one that serves as a model and road map for all who aspire to lead and serve, across any industry.

He was by any standard “to the manor born,” yet lived a life of selfless service to the country and, in his later years, specifically to the Houston community, as did his wife, Barbara, who died a few months before him.  His father, Prescott, was a United States senator and his mother the daughter of a prestigious Wall Street family.  Both instilled principles and values that guided his life, qualities to be emulated.  His dad taught service to the country as the noble obligation of the privileged class; his mother taught selflessness.  He was an outstanding baseball player at Andover, the prestigious eastern prep school, and later captained the Yale University team.  In high school, he came home after one game in which he had played exceptionally well and started boasting to his family, using examples all beginning with “I.”  His mother stopped him with the stern admonition that no one is ever interested in hearing about the big “I” – it is how the team does that matters – a viable lesson for any leader today.

He was a genuine war hero, who tried to join the U.S. Navy Air Corps the day after Pearl Harbor but was forced to wait until his 18th birthday in 1942.  As a bomber pilot, he flew 58 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, given for “heroism while involved in aerial flight.”  On one mission in the Japanese islands, tasked with taking out a radio tower, he was hit by heavy Japanese fire, but made a second attack to finish the job.  Hit again, he and his two crew members had to eject.  Bush took the plane up, tilted it toward favorable winds and issued the dreaded command, “hit the silks.”  Once his men were out, he radioed their position and ejected, hitting his head on the wing.  He was rescued, but both his crew members perished.  In his campaign’s communications, he would never let himself be referred to as a hero; his men had been lost.  He remained reverent and silent the rest of his life.  Leadership roles often require accepting difficult burdens, some lifelong.

This remarkable American achieved the highest political offices, not without great struggle first.  He also headed the CIA and was chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China.  As the former president, he was a tireless fundraiser for global catastrophes, most often partnering with another former president, Bill Clinton, the man who defeated him in 1992.  True “Bigness.”  But he was never too big to attend endless community events and to greet people, even when he was wheelchair-bound.  He was always approachable, pleasant, and gracious – the consummate gentleman, statesman, tireless giver, and superb model of servant leadership for everyone.