Jean Becker’s career journey took her places she never would have imagined. The New York Times bestselling author grew up in rural Missouri, then became a reporter on USA Today’s election team in 1988. She then moved to the White House, serving as Deputy Press Secretary to former first lady Mrs. Barbara Bush before eventually leading the office of President George H.W. Bush following his presidency. Becker joined the 2023 Presidential Leadership Scholars for a conversation on the life and legacy of the 41st President of the United States where she also shared her own experiences as a leader.
Becker on the role of Chief of Staff
“I’ll tell you that the day President Bush asked me to be his Chief of Staff, it was March 1994. He asked me just to fill in. His former Chief of Staff had retired, and he just asked me to fill in until he hired someone. I told him I didn’t know how to be a Chief of Staff. I said, `I’ve never been in charge of anybody in my life.’ I was a journalist, then a writer. At the White House, I was a Deputy Press Secretary. There was never anybody under me my entire life. So, I told him, `I don’t know how to be a Chief of Staff. I don’t know how to manage a budget. I don’t know how to do this.’ He said, `We’ll make it up as we go.’”
Becker on her personal leadership style
“I’m not a control freak. I think that’s a good part of leadership, to have a team around you that you know you don’t have to micromanage. I don’t think anybody likes a boss who micromanages, and I was always blessed to have a great team. I know a lot of people who hate their bosses, and those bosses are all micromanagers. You’ve got to be there for your team when they need you, but don’t micromanage them.
“Something that President Bush was very good about was keeping me in the loop, and I also tried to keep the staff in the loop. We had staff meetings every week where we could just put everything on the table and talk about it and be transparent.”
Becker on career pivots
“My father was supportive of me every time I did a U-turn or turned left instead of right. I think it’s important throughout your whole life to take U-turns. Taking the job at the White House was a huge leap for me because I loved my job at USA Today. Loved it. Then this offer comes along and I almost said no. It was really my dad who said to me, `Let me get this straight. The first lady of the United States has offered you a job in the White House and you’re just thinking about it.’
“You’ve got to be willing to roll the dice. You have to be willing to take that left turn.”
Becker on the traits she learned from President Bush
“President Bush was just really good at getting people, and it was his lack of ego, at making people part of the process, to make them part of the decision and getting them to see it from his way. He was, I think part of it is, he was a great listener, which I also think is an important leadership quality.”
Becker on the hardest days of the job and experiencing burnout
“The important thing is, no matter how tired I was – and yes, there were days when things didn’t go as well, maybe something didn’t quite work out – I always felt good about my job. I can’t imagine being at a job where you’re working, pulling big hours and you either hate your boss or you don’t believe in your mission.
“I so respected and adored [President Bush]. And, again, we were doing good in the world. So my advice to people is, if at all possible, find a job that you believe in what you’re doing. I also learned too late, it’s OK to spend one whole Sunday watching Netflix. You got to give yourself some time off, and you’ve got to turn off the phone and turn off the computer.”