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Tell your boss the hard truth, especially if your boss is the president

Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp on what he told George W. Bush about rebuilding after a hurricane.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  April 12, 2017

2017-Van Antwerp

Retired Lt. Gen. Robert “Van” Van Antwerp

“Is there anything I could have done differently or better?”

It’s a question that’s common — and crucial — when asking for feedback from a colleague or direct report. But when it comes from the president of the United States and you are the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, it can give you pause, said retired Lt. Gen. Robert “Van” Van Antwerp.

Van Antwerp was on Air Force One with President George W. Bush in 2007 when the president asked him that question as they were about to tour the Army Corps’ reconstruction efforts of the Louisiana Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, which had occurred two years earlier.

“I knew that when he asked a question like that, he wanted the truth. And, I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be hard to do,” Van Antwerp said. But Van Antwerp gave his opinion, because he believed that when Bush promised to rebuild New Orleans “higher and better,” it committed the Army Corps of Engineers into a specific plan that might not have been the best one for rebuilding the area.

Van Antwerp, like many, was also concerned about rebuilding the homes in the city’s Ninth Ward and the debate has raged on. Van Antwerp said it would have been preferable to move everybody in the Ninth Ward to higher ground.

Since that time, the Corps has rebuilt the levees and flood walls, and installed new pumps and floodgates around a perimeter several hundred miles long, to the tune of $14 billion.

So, Van Antwerp told the president not to promise to build something “higher and better” again following a catastrophe. Two months later, as he and Bush flew into another domestic disaster zone, Bush looked at him before he got off the plane said, “Yeah, I got it. I’m not going to say that again,” according to Van Antwerp.

Learning from failures is something all leaders should do, and it means giving and receiving feedback that’s timely, specific, and actionable, Van Antwerp said.

“I know when I’ve opened myself to that feedback, it’s been the best way to grow,” he added.

Van Antwerp, who spoke on campus April 10, served as commanding general of the Corps from 2007 to 2011 and retired after 39 years of military service. His talk was sponsored by the MIT Sloan Veterans Association.