The 2 Greatest Lessons I Learned From Presidents While Working at Camp David

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Adam Hester/Getty Images

What life and leadership lessons have you learned from various U.S. Presidents? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

During my time at Camp David from 1999 to 2001, the crew and I had the privilege of serving President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, plus their families, friends and administration officials. My family and I also had the great fortune to meet President Jimmy Carter and his family and President George H.W. Bush and his family, the Bushes on several occasions.

While I observed many fascinating, insightful, and humbling things, I will share one life and one leadership lesson that resonated with me the most: (1) Everyone needs down time, and (2) Build relationships before you need them.

(1) Everyone needs down time.

Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, how many leaders do you know that seem to think that they always need to be on task, always giving direction, always ready to take action? Further, they don’t seem to take the necessary time for themselves, their family and friends, their hobbies and interests. For both physical and psychological reasons, all of us need some downtime. At Camp David, I know the presidents got this down time and our mission was to make sure that they did. Even during the more troubling and somber moments when they were handling world or national crises, I believe that the atmosphere and aura of the retreat gave them a sense of focus and some serenity.

Much of the book, INSIDE CAMP DAVID, shares these examples of down time, some in those playful times with families and friends over a weekend or holiday, some during those horrific or difficult times in our history: WW II, Vietnam, Desert Storm, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are only six people alive today that truly know what the incredible pressures and burdens of the presidency bring, but I know from the 75-year history of the presidential retreat how they all used Camp David to varying degrees for personal relaxation, work, and, yes, down time.

(2) Build relationships before you need them.

While I do a lot of leadership coaching and management consulting, I am still amazed, more accurately troubled, by the lack of this obvious theme: build relationships!

I know that I started learning that from the time I was commissioned and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981, but my time at Camp David learning this was a key inflection point in my professional development.

There were two key lessons.

1. President Clinton and the 2000 Middle East Peace Summit.

We had five days’ notice to get ready for what was going to probably be the president’s final attempt to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO. Similar to 1978 when President Carter hosted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, we didn’t know how long the summit would go and President Clinton decided that since they seemed to be making progress, he would still depart the camp and attend the G-8 conference that year in Okinawa Japan, yet return to keep working on peace. The night he was to depart Camp David, I stood outside his cabin for five hours in a light summer drizzle, waiting to say farewell, as was customary. He wasn’t packing his bags, he wasn’t reading a book or relaxing, he was instead personally shuttling between the cabins of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLA Chairman Yasser Arafat, buried in deep debate and conversation. I have no idea what they were discussing in particular, but I did observe that the president was really working the emotions of these two world leaders in a very precarious and difficult situation. Over many previous, in-person meetings of building these relationships over his two terms, President Clinton was trying to bring the relationship-building of eight years to a success.

2. President & Mrs. Bush host PM & Mrs. Blair.

Just a month after his inauguration, the Bushes invited the Blairs to Camp David. They were their first international guests and they didn’t invite them to the formal White House, they invited them to the Catoctin Mountain retreat, much like inviting someone into your family room. A cold, snow-covered weekend, just two couples, no other guests. Politically at different ends of the spectrum, but alike as significant world leaders, I observed the Bushes spending time with the Blairs, much like two neighborhood couples would do. The president and prime minister gave a press conference outside of the camp, I’m sure they talked world issues at times, but mostly the couples talked, recreated, and dined together and it appeared to be a very light and enjoyable weekend.

Tragically, seven months later 9/11 scarred our nation and the world.

I don’t doubt that Great Britain wouldn’t have been at our side and I don’t doubt that President Bush and PM Blair wouldn’t have met eventually, but I’ve got to believe that this earlier February meeting at a calmer time had helped to build a relationship that came into play during a time of incredible crisis.

Build relationships before you need them.

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