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George Shultz: A long life with a long view

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Former Secretary of State George Shultz speaks during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, on global challenges and U.S. national security strategy. Shultz died on Saturday, Feb. 6.


One of America’s most notable public servants quietly died on Saturday shortly following his 100th birthday. Vigorous to the end, George P. Shultz was as agile as he was brilliant, as trusted as he was persistent, and as farsighted as he was indifferent to political calculations.

His success was not based on wealth or connections or simple good fortune. His remarkable accomplishments in four Cabinet posts as secretary of labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, secretary of the treasury and secretary of state were the product of his highly analytical mind, his skill at management and an intangible quality, grounded in his character that inspired devotion from those he led.

Rarely has the U.S. federal government seen anyone as versatile and determined as Shultz. His career spanned academia where he was an Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained doctor of economics, professor, dean of the Business School at the University of Chicago, and later a revered fixture at Stanford University.

In addition to his public service guiding economic and foreign policy, he was the president of Bechtel Corp., demonstrating an ability to put his economic theories and analytic skills to the test in the world of business.

My initial firsthand exposure to Shultz came at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration. By then, Shultz was already widely admired as Richard Nixon’s secretary of labor who had skillfully led a Cabinet committee that made swift progress on school desegregation in the South, who had launched the Office of Management and Budget as its first director, and had then served as secretary of the treasury ultimately convincing the president to exit the wage and price controls his predecessor, John Connally, had talked Nixon into over the objection of Shultz and other economic advisers.

As treasury secretary, he had guided the U.S. through the transition to flexible exchange rates and had steadfastly resisted efforts to the politicize the Internal Revenue Service. In watching and working with him, he consistently demonstrated three powerful traits.

Building bridges

The first was his ability to build bridges and to productively shape consensus. Eager to find a role for Shultz in his administration, a month into office, Reagan appointed Shultz to lead the President’s Economic Policy Advisory Board. The president genuinely liked to hear from those outside his immediate orbit, especially those who had experience in shaping policy in previous administrations. The advisory board, which met quarterly, included Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, Arthur Burns, Paul McCracken, Walter Wriston, Herbert Stein, and Bill Simon. 

As the White House official part of whose responsibility included providing staff support for the effort, I worked closely with Shultz and watched with admiration how he led the group for morninglong meetings before a midday session with the president to report on their views on a host of economic policy issues.

Shultz was the natural leader of the group in part because of his training as an economist and in part because of his broad experience at the treasury, OMB and labor. More importantly, however, was his style — systematically outlining the agenda, listening carefully, encouraging debate and skillfully summarizing. He consistently exhibited an ability to guide the discussion constructively, bring closure to an issue, fairly represent the views of others, and find common ground among individuals with strongly held and often differing viewpoints.

When policy differences remained, Shultz made certain that the president heard from all sides, a practice that Reagan admired and appreciated.

Integrity and trust

Second, central to his approach to virtually everything was the centrality of trust and integrity. At the Office of Management and Budget, a rising career civil servant, Paul O’Neill, asked Shultz what position he should take in representing OMB at an interagency meeting. Shultz looked him in the eye and said: “I trust you to support what is right now and will remain right in the future.”

Paul O’Neill, who would later serve as secretary of the treasury, never forgot Shultz’s counsel, or confidence, and gave the same instructions to those whom he led.

Part of what Shultz considered integrity was to allow analysis to dominate the easy or the expedient. His steely gaze in meetings caused all his colleagues to lift their game knowing that their arguments and claims would receive careful scrutiny, and if found weak or wanting would be exposed.

Shortly before his passing Shultz wrote an essay on trust as the coin of the realm. He had learned through long experience — in his home as a boy, in his service as a Marine in World War II, in mediating between workers and management in the steel industry, in desegregating schools in the South and in dealing with the Soviet Union on arms control — that trust was the glue that held good things together. He provided intellectual and moral support for Reagan’s efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and for his famous dictum: “Trust but verify.”

The long view

Third, Shultz relentlessly asked himself and others: Where will this lead? Whether the issue was resisting wage and price controls, promoting racial harmony, strengthening U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia or responding to climate change, he always focused his attention on the long term and not the short term.

He had a device that helped him to do so. As secretary of state, he set an hour aside each day where he could not be disturbed — except for a call from the president — merely to think and reflect without interruption. He often referred to it as his most productive hour of the day.

His father wrote him on his 12th birthday, “I pray that you will be inspired by lofty ideals, noble deeds, and great achievements.” George Shultz fulfilled his father’s hopes and dreams, and in the process contributed to making his country and the world a more peaceful and prosperous place.

Roger B. Porter is the IBM professor of business and government at Harvard University.