One On One

Laura Bush

As a former schoolteacher and librarian, it was only natural that Laura Bush would make education and literacy the focus of her tenure as first lady. Here she speaks to Convene on why lifelong learning, the lifeblood of the meetings industry, is 'key to any sort of success in society.'

In her book “Spoken From the Heart“, Laura Bush shares many stories of her incredible life. But the one she retells the most often “may not be the one” that she actually wants to tell, she said in an interview with Convene. It’s the story of where she was on Sept. 11. “When I talk about where I was, everyone wants to talk about where they were,” Mrs. Bush said. “We want to still go over in our minds where people were; I think this probably occurs at all times when there is a very dramatic happening. People want to put some sort of context to it, such as where they were, or how they heard, or what they thought.”

Mrs. Bush’s personal retelling of the events of that day, a big part of her book, includes stories other people have told her, such as people who lost a family member that tragic day. And those stories are part of the design of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which is being built on a 24-acre site on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. After people walk through the museum, they will be “able to record where they were and what they heard,” Mrs. Bush said. “Their stories become part of the history that belongs to the presidential library.”

So, back to Mrs. Bush and where she was on the morning of Sept. 11. She was on Capitol Hill, scheduled to brief the Senate Education Committee about an education symposium to be held under her leadership. She hasn’t stopped beating the drum for education and leadership development since she left the White House. Here, she shares with us what that, and the importance of creating a network, means in terms of the meetings industry.

Why is it that you are so passionate about education?

I believe that education is the key to any sort of success in society, both personally and professionally. When you have a chance to read widely, your whole world is broader. You may not be able to travel, but if you can read widely, you know what is happening in other parts of the world.

I also think that educated people are more understanding. They understand others, see the ways that they are different and similar. We all feel happiness, sadness, and loneliness. I think learning and reading is the way to be a broader and more open person. Especially now, considering the huge technological advances that are happening, it is important for people to receive a formal education much earlier in their life and to continue to educate themselves. They have to learn to handle technology. For instance, when I went to library school, you shelved books and checked books out with a card catalogue. Now we use search engines, computers, and such.

We don’t look in the old Encyclopedia Britannicathat we might have in the past. We have a much broader and wider access to information. This is true in every field. Technology has changed things, and lifelong learning helps you keep up with it.

Deeper than that, if you are learning, you are still living. The more you continue to read and keep up with current events and also read history, the better your life will be. I think it gives you a deeper understanding and a more interesting life to have a broader view. Knowing about people and technology, and all the things you might not have learned when you were back in a formal education setting, is so important.

How do you recommend convincing and encouraging people to spend time on learning, reflecting, and thinking in this 24/7/365 world?

That is very difficult. People are very, very busy. We’re busy with mundane things like looking at our text messages every three minutes, and that does make deep study and taking long periods of time reading difficult for us. I think it shows how much harder it is for us to allocate time. But everything is not just a surface three-line text. We want to have a deeper understanding of our own careers as well as the rest of the world’s issues.

What are examples of the best learning experiences you have observed and/or participated in during meetings and conferences?

I always think that the best, and of course I think this because I am a librarian, learning experiences, and anyone would tell you this, happen when people remember wonderful stories told by a really good storyteller.

This could be an inspiring speaker who tells interesting stories about people as part of the speech. It could be the story of your partner if you are in a learning situation, an association situation where you are matched up with a partner who shares what they have experienced in their own work life that you realize you can apply to yours.

That is, to hear a story directly from someone either in a speech or while working in a group, a specific idea or technique that you never thought of could surface. That’s what people remember. Of course, it’s like a sermon, you remember it if there is a story as part of it that makes you feel a certain way.

What are examples of the best learning experiences you have observed and/or participated in that are not in a traditional classroom setting? For example, I know that you have frequently met with women in Afghanistan.

We learn by sharing our experiences with one another. That is the way to get to be close to people. That’s why our best friends are people that we can talk to about our experiences and they won’t necessarily be judgmental. They want to just hear, understand, and listen. This is so important in a learning experience.

At the Bush Institute [which, according to,”has assembled a team of experts, scholars, business leaders, and practitioners to meet today’s challenges”], we just hosted a group of Egyptian women. We invited them as fellows [to the Women’s Initiative Fellowship Program at the Bush Institute]. We invited all women from Egypt because of the result of research by a professor from SMU and others. This research concludes that if you bring people all from the same country (or organization), when they go home they have each other, they have a network so they can apply and advance their learning.

And they not only have each other but they can introduce each other to their colleagues and their families. So they can very quickly expand their network. One of the things we know, and many businesspeople have done research about this, is that your network is one of the things that makes you most effective. If you have a network that supports you and have colleagues in the same profession you are in, it is much more likely to be successful.

One of the things that the Egyptian women did when they were here was go to business classes at SMU with professors who taught leadership skills. They were very fascinated with how these leadership skills were taught. There were really things that they hadn’t thought about. They were taught, for example, how to negotiate. It is difficult to negotiate when you are not in authority. In many countries, as we know, women are not in authority. The males in the room are in charge. These Egyptian women mentioned at the end of their fellowship that this was the most important part of the fellowship experience. They saw experiences that they have in everyday life in a different light.

That is what really good education is about, don’t you agree? That you see your everyday experiences in a different light and you see things that you haven’t thought about before.

I teach leadership skills in the U.S. and globally, including in developing countries. Usually these programs have only one person from each country or organization attending. I will be communicating your idea about how important it is to have a group from the same location and/or the same organization so that they can follow up together and therefore have a greater chance of success.

Yes, that is terrific, and we can stay in touch with them through Skype and the Internet. The program director of the fellowship program stays in daily contact with them, and now they are also meeting with each other. It really has been so effective to them to have this network.

As part of the direction of the fellowship, we guide them to increase their network. Our thinking is, you have met these women from your own country, how can all of you together increase your network and effectiveness? It is a different way to look at it, and it has proven to be very helpful.

What other opportunities are there to learn about leadership at the George W. Bush Library, in addition to the one you just talked about?

That is just the museum part. We are still working on the library, which should be finished by next fall. One of the things we are focused on is leadership skills. What makes a good leader? And how can leaders make good, informed decisions? That is one of the themes running through the museum. The fellowship [program] that I just mentioned is through the Institute.

We are working on four policy areas that were most important to George during the time he was president. The four policy areas are education, human freedom, global health, and the economy. The Women’s Initiative that I mentioned runs through all four policy areas. How each one of these policy areas affects women is a strong focus. In fact, George and I are going to Africa for the Pink Ribbon, Red Ribbon initiative, which builds on the AIDS platform that was started when George was president and adding to it the testing, treatment, and vaccine for cervical cancer. That is the predominant cancer in women in Africa now. You know that it comes from a virus and women are now living who are HIV-positive, but they are dying of cervical cancer. So that is our big global health initiative. We are working with the State Department, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and the drug companies that make the vaccine for the virus.

The rest of the world looks at the United States and sees the way we both volunteer and view philanthropy. I see many countries that want to build volunteerism and philanthropy in their countries similarly, and I think that’s great.

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies, LLC. She served as CEO of The Greater Washington Society of Association Executives and was the founding CEO of The Center for Association Leadership and executive vice president of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). She can be reached at

Editors’ Note: We thank the Washington Speakers Bureau for making this interview possible.

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.