On Wednesday night, Boston College hosted Karen Hughes, former counsellor to President George W. Bush and the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She is now the global vice chair of Burson-Marsteller, a public relations and communications firm.
This program was funded through the Clough Colloquium, a program formed by Charles I. Clough ’64 and Gloria L. Clough M.Div. ’90, M.S. ’96. The mission of the Clough Colloquium is to introduce the BC community to leaders with high ethical standards.
Hughes was born in Paris, but grew up in Texas, where she attended Southern Methodist University. She graduated summa cum laude with degrees in both english and journalism.
Hughes found an internship at a TV station and grew to love covering politics specifically because she came to realize that the decisions made in the political process impact many lives.
The TV station offered her a job after she graduated. Rather than becoming cynical of politics, as many reporters do, she found politicians to be incredibly inspiring in what they could do for other people. She decided to get involved in the field of politics.
After working for Reagan’s campaign, she worked to get Former President of the United States George W. Bush elected governor of Texas in 1995. Hughes said that joining the campaign was a difficult decision because she knew she would have to sacrifice her personal life. After he won the election, she worked with him for six years.
When Bush decided to run for president, he asked Hughes to help him with his campaign.
“He told me that he wasn’t going to run if I hadn’t gone with him,” she said. “And I don’t know if that’s true or not. I think he probably would have run but I think he was pressuring me to come along.”
Hughes’s talk was centered on the three principles she believes to be essential to being a good leader: clarity, example, and optimism. She drew on her experiences in working for the government to provide examples of how these entities can be effective in the workplace.
She said the morning after Sept. 11, President Bush came into the office with a clear vision as to what needed to be done. In a time filled with chaos and uncertainty, she was surprised at his calm and determined manner.
President Bush, she added, was always clear about his expectations. At the first staff meeting held after he was elected President, he told the staff that they needed to collaborate and listen to one another. He also demanded that they all respond to each other’s missed calls before responding to any others. From the first day, it felt as though the entire staff was part of the President’s team—there were no departments or divisions among them.
Hughes explained that in today’s world with the communication climate that we have, between social media and the television, sticking to your moral values is especially important.
“Define yourself or someone else will define you,” she said.
She believes that this was Mitt Romney’s downfall in the 2012 election. He allowed Obama to define him before he could define himself.
Next, Hughes spoke of the importance of a leader setting the example. President Bush showed the importance of example in both small and large ways, she said.
President Bush was very timely, she said. He believed that it was rude to be late. His staff responded positively to the fact that he placed an importance on the values that they had to value as part of their jobs, too, he said.
Hughes described the trying times that she and Bush experienced in the White House and how these difficult times reflected his character. She said in the days after Sept. 11, President Bush took the time to ask many of the staff members how they and their families were doing. President Bush, she said, was also hesitant to visit the places where the tragedy had taken place because he did not want to be in the way. This showed his true humility, she said.
She said the fact that President Bush valued honesty made it so that she was never nervous to tell him that he made a mistake or to relay bad news to him.
President Bush also emphasized the importance of family. He told all of his staff that if they were a parent that was to be their number one job. Because of the President’s beliefs on the importance of family, Hughes was able to make the decision to leave the White House after 18 months of working there in order to spend more time with her family.
Hughes’ final point was that leaders must possess optimism, which to her means passion and enthusiasm. She pointed out that at many points in Bush’s presidency it was difficult to remain optimistic. During the 2008 recession, Hughes called President Bush to see how he was dealing with the stress of the situation. She said he had no self-pity.
Hughes shared that when she was abroad representing America in Turkey, she visited a low-income housing neighborhood. One of the boys she met asked her if the Statue of Liberty was still facing out.
She said this was one of the most haunting questions she experienced on the trip—it is, in fact, still facing out, she responded.
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor