Lessons on Leadership: My Evening with President Bush

Matt Burk
October 21, 2015
Lessons on Leadership:  My Evening with President Bush

Last Friday night on the final evening of our third Small Balance Real Estate Summit, in Dallas Texas, I had the unique privilege to meet and interview former President of the United States, George W. Bush. Just prior to going to stage for the interview, my wife and I and the other principals (and wives) of Fairway America went backstage to greet and chat with the 43rd President before I was to introduce him to the slightly fewer than 200 people in the audience. As he walked onto the stage, I shook his hand and we sat down side by side in two leather chairs to have a sixty-minute discussion on subjects ranging from family to business to geopolitics and current events. It was an hour of my life that I will never forget.

Political preferences aside, there is not a person in that room who can honestly tell you that Mr. Bush is anything but a principled leader, a genuine human being, and a lover of America and everything that this country stands for. He was funny, engaging, intelligent and self-deprecating while telling tales of his family, his life and his Presidency, and he dispelled any notion perpetuated by some of the media of not being qualified for the highest executive position in the greatest country on Earth. Among his many amusing and poignant stories, he relayed a particularly funny and telling anecdote about his personal encounters with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Apparently Mr. Putin “dissed” the President’s dog Barney when they first met and then, when Mr. Bush met Putin on his home turf, Putin, referring to his own dog who was nearby, a large hound of sorts, said in his Russian accent, “Bigger, stronger, faster.” This statement said all Mr. Bush needed to know about the mindset of the Russian leader who felt compelled to compare and measure himself against the American leader based on the size of their dogs.

After the interview and the pictures, which was the culmination of our two day event, people gathered in the Atrium of the Hilton Anatole and talked, laughed and drank until late that night. Over and over again people told me how much they enjoyed the interview, the evening and the event as a whole, more than a few commenting it was the best event they have ever attended. All of the emotion and connection amongst the people there made the entire experience and the evening’s proceedings especially somewhat surreal for me after all that has happened in the past few years. Besides the fact that people got the opportunity to spend an hour with the 43rd President of the United States in a very small and intimate setting, I think what resonates most with people about the SBRE Summit is what it stands for and the core values we espouse and clearly define and articulate at the very beginning of the event for everyone to embrace.

Authenticity is the first of these – just being real and honest with oneself and others during the event about one’s business, one’s real story, and one’s motives for being there.

Be Who You Are is the next, following logically from the first. We go to so many events and conferences, especially “investor” events, where we can never figure out who is really who, what they actually do or don’t do, and what their motivations really are for being there. There is often a great deal of posturing and pretending, ignoring and either disrespecting or fawning, depending on who one is, and generally just not Being Who You Are.

The third is Consideration – the displaying of mutual respect and simple thoughtfulness of other people, regardless of relative position, wealth, or status. This cuts both ways – not blatantly soliciting and spewing up your pitch to investors if you are a manager, and not avoiding or being condescending to managers if you are an investor. Just to be mutually respectful and willing to engage each another in intelligent conversation. And the final one is

Abundance – the belief that there is more than enough – money, investments, contacts, business, investors, etc. – to go around for everyone. If one is competent and capable, diligent and disciplined, is respectful and commands respect, there is no need to be protective of or defensive about anything. To paraphrase the old proverb, hold a relationship (a friend, a lover, an investor, etc.) too tightly, and it struggles to become free. Allow it to fly, and if it remains or comes back, it does so of its own volition. Doing the things and being the person that make it want to stay is far superior than attempting to cage it.

During the opening session, I shared these principles and asked the audience to embody them in their behavior and actions, if only for the time they were present at the Summit. By clearly articulating them and then by demonstrating them myself in various ways, I find that it sets the tone for the entire event and helps people to truly be themselves. This process contributes greatly to the success of the event and to the feelings engendered in pretty much everyone there. Our objective, both at the event and outside of it, is to truly build a community of Small Balance Real Estate entrepreneurs, fund managers, and high net worth investors who can all benefit from knowing and interacting with one another with authenticity, consideration and respect. If done on this basis, our belief is that it fosters abundance and lays the foundation for quality relationships and open communication through the inevitable ups and downs of market cycles. People do not expect perfection, but they have a right to expect the pursuit of excellence and the willingness for counterparties to be honest about how things are going at any given point in time. Everyone (or at least most people) will agree with this sentiment, but far fewer are able to live by it during the most difficult times of life and business.

Throughout the event, I tried to emphasize the point to fund managers and investors alike that the true measure of a fund manager is not how they behave when market conditions are favorable and everything is going swimmingly. It is rather how they react to difficult circumstances, how they behave when conditions are conspiring against them, and whether and how they communicate what is truly going on, positive or negative, at any given point in time in the life of their fund. Of course everyone wants to be successful and produce a return, and quality fund managers will succeed far more often than they fail. Competency as to strategy, execution and results is extremely important and should continually be developed as well as sought. But no one is going to be bulletproof on every decision, every deal, and every outcome. It is when they are not and how they respond that defines the character of the person and is, to my mind, what is most important in a fund manager and in a human being. And I was pleased to see that President Bush echoed these themes in our interview on that special Friday evening in Dallas.

On Saturday, after it was all over, I visited the George W. Bush Presidential Library for a few hours. I was reminded of the many agonizingly challenging events and developments during his Presidency – 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis, and others – and pondered just how difficult and demanding the office of the Presidency really is. As Mr. Bush said, the position takes absolutely everything you’ve got.

I spoke to my father on the phone while I was there, who was unable to make it to Dallas for the event, and we talked about what had happened the night before. He told me that he wished his dad, my grandfather, was alive to see that interview and how proud he would have been. He was in the Navy, fought in World War II at Okinawa, and worked for the US Customs Office his entire career after that. Although he was a lifelong Democrat and would probably have disagreed with some of Mr. Bush’s policies and decisions, we would still have greatly admired and respected the character of the man and the principles by which he lives his life. My grandfather was a huge believer in the purpose and mission of the military, in freedom, and in the United States of America. I reflected upon all the time I spent with him as a kid in California and Arizona and the lessons he tried to teach me, many of which required the passage of much time for me to truly absorb. And it made me proud to have the honor to personally interview an American President who believes in these same things and who was not afraid to make hard decisions and act based on his own principles in order to do the very best he could on behalf of his country, even while knowing that not everyone was going to agree with him. This is the mark of a good leader, a good businessperson, and a good fund manager as well.  

Photo of Matt BurkMatt Burk is founder and CEO of Fairway America, LLC, and SBREfunds.com, and Chief Investment Officer of Fairway’s two proprietary nationwide small balance real estate (SBRE) asset based pooled investment funds, Fairway America Fund VI, LLC, and Fairway America Fund VII LP. Fairway is the nation’s premier consulting, advisory, and investment firm in the SBRE private pooled investment fund space, providing a full spectrum of practical, real world products and services (including capital) needed for true success for SBRE entrepreneurs all over the U.S. Matt is a highly regarded adviser, consultant, and mentor to dozens of SBRE fund managers and author of a widely read blog followed by serious SBRE entrepreneurs and investors. For over 20 years, Matt has led Fairway’s deal underwriting as well as capital raising efforts in Fairway’s seven proprietary funds and individual trust deed investments, resulting in more than $250,000,000 in capital raised from accredited investors through more than 1,000 SBRE deals. He is currently working on multiple SBRE fund consulting engagements nationwide, authoring a book on how to raise capital for and effectively manage pooled investment funds, and dedicating his efforts to create greater awareness and drive more capital to the many high caliber and deserving SBRE entrepreneurs around the U.S.