Secrets of Success: Erskine Bowles

This next month signals the end of the Federal budget cycle. There’s been a great deal of passionate conversation about the budget and what can be done.  I re-read a snippet of GEN Shelton’s book, Secrets of Success (p. 65), and saw this snippet of a conversation with Erskine Bowles. I got the privilege to work indirectly with Mr. Bowles while he served as president of the University of North Carolina system.   I learned a lot from working with him on some projects to help our public schools and this snippet reinforces his values-based approach.  He is demanding, fair, and unwavering in his commitment to the needs of the state and nation. It was an honor.

“My understanding of leadership goes back to my father, Skipper Bowles.  When I was just a boy I remember going to a dinner over in Winston Salem, and when my dad was going to get some kind of prestigious award.  He looked at the audience and then at my two sisters and me and said, “Thank you, but I don’t want you to judge me based on what I’ve done.   I want you to judge me on what my children to for others.”  Later we asked him what he by that and he said, “Look, I believe that the success that I’ve had and the good decisions I’ve made in my life are a reflection on the values I got from my parents and the good education that they provided me.  I think the choices that you will make will be similar, a reflection on your mom and me.”  My dad used to always talk about how in the old south when you went out to chop firewood for your own family that you’d always throw a few logs on the community woodpile.  He’d say, “I want you all to feel that it’s always important to add to the community woodpile.”

So all of us – my sisters included – have, in our own distinct ways, tried to do just that, think about that night and what my father said in every leadership effort we’ve undertaken. I’ve had numerous opportunities to lead, and for that I’m very grateful. Working as President Clinton’s chief of staff, head of the small business association, and then later as the UN deputy special envoy to thirteen tsunami-affected countries in Southeast Asia all provided unique experiences. 

 Over the years people have asked me about the balanced budget when I was chief of staff during the Clinton Administration, wondering if that wasn’t the proudest moment of my time in leadership in Washington. My response is, “Yes, in some ways, but my proudest moment was putting together a team that had sharp minds and not sharp elbows.  We really focused on trying to move the country forward rather than to take some kind of partisanship off the table, establishing trust on both sides of the aisle.”  But the part of the balanced budget story that I like the best is this:  while we were balancing the budget we got twenty-seven billion dollars of new funding for health care insurance for five million poor kids. This was values-based leadership.  While being fiscally responsible we were still investing in something that could really make a difference in the lives of the kids.