The Humble Leadership Lesson This Young Entrepreneur Learned From George H. W. Bush

A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

Image Credit: The Associated Press

Before Dave Dutch was a CEO, he was a member of the US Navy Special Operations. In, Would You Risk Arrest To Reinforce Your Company’s Culture?, I recently recounted how Dave reinforced his company’s culture by not cutting his hair for over 16-months. He eventually sold that company for over $300 million.

In an email in which he thanked me for writing the company culture article, he also included an insightful vignette about George H.W. Bush and how it impacted his leadership style throughout his startup career. I was so moved by the anecdote, that I’m compelled to share it with a broader audience.

There Is No Such Thing As An Unimportant Person

There are few people more powerful than a US President. It would be understandable for any President, even the humblest, to eventually take for granted the sacrifices of the people who keep them safe. Understandable, but not admirable. President Bush senior was the exception – he remained humble, despite the lavish trappings of his office.

A young Dave Dutch’s leadership style was impacted by a surprising act of kindness by George Bush senior. Dave recounts the encounter as follows:

“John – with the country mourning President Bush’s passing, I have to tell you about an experience I had with him, which I have called upon many times managing my teams during my decades as a CEO.

I had the honor of attending the United States Naval Academy and serving in the US Navy as a special operations officer during the first Gulf War. In 1987, I walked across the Naval Academy graduation stage to shake hands with then Vice President George H.W. Bush, as he gave me my diploma and wished me luck with a genuine smile. Little did I know that this man would one day be my Commander-in-Chief and give me unfettered access to a Prime Minister’s yacht.

In late December of 1991, President Bush embarked on a tour of the Pacific Rim that is most remembered for the incident where he became ill at an event hosted by the Prime Minister of Japan in early January. I remember that trip for what happened earlier, when our President was in Sydney at an event hosted by the Australian Prime Minister.

When the United States President travels the globe, an unprecedented level of security follows him, including military units that are often called on to supplement the Secret Service.

I was stationed in the Philippines, leading a Special Ops dive team. We were deployed to Australia to augment security for a New Year’s Eve party in honor of President Bush, which was held on the Australian Prime Minister’s yacht to watch the famous Sydney Harbor fireworks.

It was a miserable, cold and wet evening as my team patrolled the waters around the yacht as part of the defensive perimeter. We spent hours in the water as guests and dignitaries arrived and boarded the vessel.

President Bush arrived for the party that was supposed to last late into the night, but as soon as the fireworks were completed, the Prime Minister’s vessel quickly returned to the dock. This was presumably driven by the President feeling ill.

As President Bush disembarked, he looked down in the water and saw my team sitting in our rubber boat, in the cold rain. He stopped, turned to one of his aids, pointed down at us and asked ‘Are those our guys?’ Upon hearing the affirmative response, he then turned to the Prime Minister and whispered something in his ear. The Prime Minister smiled, laughed and gave him a thumbs up.

As the President and Prime Minister’s caravan departed, the aid that had been with President Bush shouted to us, “This is your lucky evening. The President and the Prime Minister want to thank you for your service and are giving you guys the boat.”

Instead of spending the evening in the water protecting our Commander-In-Chief, my team and I brought in the New Year, still in our dive gear, celebrating on perhaps the nicest vessel any of us would ever board.

The evening was the best New Year’s Eve of my life, because my Commander-In-Chief taught me an important lesson: take care of your team, before you take care of yourself. This has been a core tenant of my leadership style from that day forward.

Every New Year’s Eve I make it a point to tell this story, about that wonderful man. I am proud to have served under his leadership, and Mr. President, thank you for that boat and for teaching me a life-long lesson of humble leadership!”

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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