Q&A with former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson ’68

Paulson, who was a member of the Big Green football 1965 and 1966 Ivy League champion teams, shared how his experience at Dartmouth shaped his skills as a leader.

by Caroline York | 9/30/22 1:05am

by The Dartmouth / The Dartmouth

Henry Paulson ’68 is one of Dartmouth’s most notable alumni. As a member of the Big Green football team, he led the team to Ivy League titles in 1965 and 1966. After graduation, he obtained an MBA from Harvard Business School. Following a stint at the Pentagon and working in the Richard Nixon administration, he joined investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, where he was eventually named chief executive officer. From 2006 to 2009, he served as Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush and managed the financial crisis of 2008. The Dartmouth sat down with Paulson to discuss how his Dartmouth experience helped to build his leadership skills and prepare for a remarkable career. 

During your time at Dartmouth, you wore many hats as a starter on the football team, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a member of a fraternity. How did balancing these responsibilities prepare you for later challenges in your career?

HP: When the football team won the Lambert Trophy in 1965, the football team had a higher academic average than the student body overall. I played with three starting linemen who went to medical school and another who became a Presbyterian minister — and I went to business school. My primary goal was to do well academically, and then I had an opportunity to play on a team that did very well on the field for three years. 

I’ve always felt that a good key to success is being able to balance multiple activities. I think one of the things I learned while playing football at Dartmouth is the discipline it takes to pursue a number of different things at the same time. I was playing with others who cared a lot about their success in the classroom. I also had a coaching staff that recognized how important it was for all of us to do well in the classroom.

How did football complement your work in the classroom and enhance your liberal arts education as an English major?

HP: There’s nothing that is quite as valuable as a broad liberal arts education, where students are taught to think creatively, to think out of the box and to explore ideas. When I ran Goldman Sachs, I hired people from the best schools all over the world, and I thought that the U.S. liberal arts schools did the very best job of preparing outstanding leaders. One of the reasons I picked Dartmouth was that it was a college that was largely focused on undergraduates. Unlike some of my friends that went to Harvard, where they were taught by teaching assistants, the big-name professors at Dartmouth taught me. I went to professors’ houses for dinner.  

You endowed the head coaching position after your former coach, Robert L. Blackman. What influence did he have on you not only in your Dartmouth journey but also in your later career?

HP: Bob Blackman was a towering figure. He demanded excellence. He was a brilliant coaching mind. We had a very, very complicated offense. We always knew that when we went out there, we’d be better coached and better prepared than any other team. What was amazing to me, it wasn’t just Blackman, but it was the coaches he assembled. They were a fantastic group  — every one of his assistant coaches went on to become a head coach. With Bob Blackman, I really learned the importance of preparedness, excellence and discipline. I was able to honor a man who was a very important figure in my life [by endowing the position of Blackman].

You’ve been quoted as saying that “Peacocks seldom make good leaders.” How much of that philosophy ties back to your time as a Dartmouth offensive lineman?  

HP: In high school, I was a good wrestler, and when you go on the mat, it’s just you. I respect that, but there’s something to be said for athletes who are part of a team. I always liked hiring men and women athletes who participated in team sports. To me, it wasn’t as important if they were really good athletes, but whether they knew how to compete and win and lose graciously. The interesting thing about football is that you’re relying on each other. I was an offensive lineman, and you’ve got to be willing to grovel in the dirt. You’re there to support others, so you're certainly not a peacock. I have great respect for linemen.

Did you view President Bush more as your coach or your quarterback during your time as Secretary of Treasury?

HP: It’s a very interesting relationship; President Bush was very much a coach as opposed to a quarterback because he delegated. In a crisis, you need to move quickly. Even when I was bringing in very bad news at different points during the financial crisis of 2008, he said to me, “Listen, you are my wartime general right now. You have prepared for this your whole life; you and I have had a year to work together before the crisis hit. So I trust you.” Then I kept him posted. When I came to him and said, “Mr. President, we’re going to have to put capital in the banks.” He said, “But you told the whole world you weren’t going to do that.” I said, “I’m just going to say we were wrong, and we need to change in order to save the financial system.” He gave me his support and told me it was the right decision. President Bush was also in the Class of 1968 from Yale, which was the team that dethroned us my senior year, so he would kid me about that. He’s a sports fan.

Do you have any words of advice for Dartmouth football players as they prepare for the upcoming season and seek to defend their 2021 Ivy League title?

HP: It’d be great if they win the league again, but I think the important thing for that team is going to be being able to look in the mirror and know that they gave their all, because you’re just not going to win a championship every year. The victories feel great. The losses feel terrible. A lot of life has to do with being able to win gracefully, and then be able to also lose gracefully and figure out how to get up and then win the next game. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.