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Presidents Bush and Clinton unite to train new leaders

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Susan Page

Susan Page is the Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY, covering her 9th presidential campaign (and still trying to get it right). She's interviewed the past 8 presidents and reported from 5 continents.

MOUNT VERNON, Va. — The 60 mid-career professionals, meeting in a conference center on George Washington’s estate, are dissecting the leadership style of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski for lessons to apply to their own dramatically different enterprises.

Casey Gerald wants to expand a network of MBAs who volunteer to advise fledgling entrepreneurs in inner cities and rural areas. Micaela McMurrough hopes to create a training program that prepares federal judges to handle cases involving national security and intelligence issues.

And William McNulty, who co-founded a program that deploys U.S. veterans to respond to natural and other disasters, would like to replicate it in a dozen countries around the world for veterans of their military services.

The three are members of the first class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, an unprecedented program co-sponsored by the presidential libraries of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson. Over the next six months, the group will gather at each of the libraries for case studies on leadership in each administration, with a graduation next July that will feature George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

“It occurred to me that there were these four presidential centers within a day’s drive, and that we should in some way partner together and harness what they represent together as the history of the last half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st,” says Margaret Spellings, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the newest presidential library. She served as Education secretary in the Bush administration.

She reached out to Bruce Lindsey, chairman of the board of the Clinton Foundation and a former adviser in the Clinton White House. He already was considering a somewhat similar proposal by Al From, who had founded the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that Bill Clinton once headed, to sponsor a training program for aspiring Democratic officials, perhaps paired with a program at the Bush library for aspiring Republicans.

Spellings and Lindsey got together for dinner last January in Boston to talk about how the non-partisan leadership program might work. Just over a year later, the 60 scholars from across the country, chosen from more than 900 applicants, were meeting in suburban Virginia last week for the first of six extended weekends of classes and conversation.

“Hopefully, they will come out with greater skills, with a better defined way to think about how they want to get things done,” Lindsey says. “Then we hope this will be a network of people who can rely on each other, so they become a peer group for each other.”

Leaders of the nation’s 13 presidential centers sometimes confer on legal and legislative issues that affect all of them. They have borrowed ideas for exhibits from one another. The restaurant at the Clinton library in Little Rock is named “42,” reflecting his standing as the nation’s 42nd president; the restaurant at the Bush library is named “43.”

But Spellings and Lindsey say this is the most expansive program on which the presidential libraries ever have collaborated. The fact that it was launched as lawmakers in the Capitol, a 30-minute drive away, were locked in a bitter partisan battle over whether to shut down the Department of Homeland Security wasn’t lost on anyone.

“It’s a little bit surprising to me, how taken people are with the fact that President Clinton and President Bush like each other and are working together in common cause on this,” Spellings says. “That’s the medium-is-the-message thing. We’re walking the walk.”

That’s not even to mention the prospect that Clinton’s wife, former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, just might end up running for president next year against Bush’s brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

“We laugh about it,” Lindsey says. The two former presidents will get together to discuss leadership for the group at the final session at the George W. Bush center in Dallas.

Over long weekends at each of the libraries, the group will discuss case studies for each administration that deal with aspects of leadership: “Vision and communication” at the Clinton center, focused on the welfare overhaul he signed in 1996. “Decision making” at the George W. Bush center, focused on the financial crisis in 2008. “Influence and persuasion” at the LBJ library, focused on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And “coalition building” at the George H.W. Bush library, focused on German reunification in 1990.

“I’m particularly interest in the focus on coalition building,” says McNulty, 37, a former Marine. He founded Team Rubicon, which in the past five years has dispatched teams of mostly American veterans on more than 80 missions around the world to respond to disasters. Now he is working on Team Rubicon Global, which in the next five years would establish Team Rubicons in a dozen other countries, tapping their military veterans.

“Combat zones and disaster zones are eerily similar,” he says. “The skills that vets have like teamwork, decisive leadership, logistics — these things are needed in disaster zones.”

About a fourth of the group of presidential leadership scholars have a military background, a fourth come from the business world and a fourth from nonprofit organizations. The rest work for government agencies, as educators and in academia.

Gerald, 28, formed MBAs Across America in 2012 with three of his classmates from the Harvard Business School. Last summer, in their inaugural effort, 32 MBAs from six top business schools volunteered in 27 cities and rural areas to help entrepreneurs trying to establish or expand businesses.

“My ambition is for the organization not to exist,” he says, with hopes to institutionalize the program at the schools. “We’re going to spend the next five years working collaboratively with business schools on how to make this kind of experience part of what it means to be an MBA in this country.”

By the end of the leadership program, Gerald says he also hopes to have formed a “posse” with others in the group.

“I have a particular view on what we’re going to have to do as a generation of business leaders to actually make a tangible impact,” he says. “I think that’s got to be informed by a lot of other people.”