As our nation continues the process of mourning President George H.W. Bush, I wanted to share a story with you that was shared with me this past weekend. It was told to me by a friend who spent his career at the CIA. I can’t reveal his name for obvious reasons but his story is one I wanted to share with you. I think it’s a particularly good lesson for those who lead a team – whether they’re in political, private or military life.
Here’s what my friend told me:
My first encounter with 41 was many, many years ago; he was the Director of Central Intelligence. I was a young officer, still not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had spent very little time in the headquarters building – and I actually worked hard not to go there.
My supervisor finally cornered me and forced me to go to a mandatory two-week course at headquarters. I had managed to squirm out of it three times but this time I was trapped. I hated the course, didn’t care for the instructor and didn’t warm up to my classmates. They all appeared to know each other, I didn’t know any of them and made little attempt to get to know them.
At lunch, I would slip down to the cafeteria, get a cheeseburger, chips, and a coke, take my newspaper and go sit in the corner, eat and catch up with the world. (There was no internet!)
On about the fourth day, I was sitting in the corner, minding my own business and I felt a presence... someone was standing over me, with a tray. “Mind if I join you?” The stranger asked. I looked up, ready to say I was almost done... To my surprise, it was George Bush, then the Director of Central Intelligence. He was all by himself.
I stood up and said, "Please, have a seat.” I introduced myself and told him where I worked. He started to introduce himself and I said, I know who you are.
He laughed... that laugh of his. He said we had minutes before his people (handlers) would realize he was missing and come find him.
We talked about duty and service. I told him about my job and how I was there for a class... I left out the part about me being a jerk and not mixing in.
He opined that those classes were a good way to bond with people from different parts of the organization. I believe he sensed I wasn’t doing that because I was eating alone. I was embarrassed.
True to his thought, soon after some folks “found” him – although he insisted he wasn’t lost. I invited him to come visit the building I worked in to see what great work my colleagues were doing. He said he would.
I went back to the class. Late. I told them why and was bombarded with questions about him. I had an epiphany and became a full participant.
He left me with a message I hadn’t understood – not only was I learning from my classmates, but they were also learning from me.
A few weeks later a handwritten note found its way to me at my office. He thanked me for our conversation at lunch; it said he had learned a lot!
Little did he know the lesson I learned from him. He turned my life and career around.
This was the first encounter I had with him... and my favorite George H.W. Bush story.
When I responded to my friend’s note, saying how remarkable this story is, he said this:
“Remember, the Agency was under siege by the Church and Pike committees. People were angry (I was angry). Morale was low and it wasn’t enjoyable coming into work. He made me feel (probably for the first time) a senior [leader] cared about me and what I thought.
"His gift of asking the right questions and listening was amazing. He made me feel what we were doing WAS important and everything was going to be alright.
"I had been looking to leave. Of course, I didn’t... but his lessons weren’t lost on me.
"I learned how to be a good, compassionate leader and understood that everyone was always looking at you for direction and assurance that you care about them and what they do."
It is and was most important to lead when things were not going well.”