Applying leadership lessons from presidents to the outdoor industry

Cotopaxi Founder Davis Smith shares his takeaways from a presidential leadership program, and encourages others in the outdoor industry and beyond to apply.
Publish date:
Davis Smith, center, stands with past presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Davis Smith, center, stands with past presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

For six months, Cotopaxi’s founder hung out with past presidents in their presidential libraries.

Davis Smith recently joined 240 alumni after graduating from the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, and he says it has helped shape his view of dedicating his life to serving others.

"As a leader in the outdoor industry, I hoped this experience would not only give me insights that would help me better lead my company, Cotopaxi, but I also hoped to get guidance on how I could positively impact my local community, accomplish our company’s goal of alleviating global poverty, and make an impact in protecting the wild places we all love," Smith said.

More takeaways

A common theme between all presidents was that they found peace in the outdoors. Smith said, "Hillary Clinton was spotted walking in the woods with Bill Clinton the day after conceding the election to Donald Trump. Bill Clinton used running as a way to stay fit during his presidency and to reduce stress. George W. Bush's love for mountain biking was no secret during his presidency, and he continued to ride weekly, often with wounded warriors and other veterans. George H.W. Bush went skydiving on his 80th, 85th, and 90th birthdays. Lyndon B. Johnson was obsessed with swimming and also passed the Clean Air, Water Quality and Clean Water Restoration Acts and Amendments, the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the 1968 National Trail System Act. He created 35 national parks.

Smith said one thing that really resonated with him was something President Bush said, which was that great leadership involves finding a purpose and rallying people in that shared cause. He also said that President Clinton was a master at it.

"My vision from the beginning of Cotopaxi was that I could use this business as a way to start a movement," Smith said. "I believed business could be a force for good, that we could build a business that focused deeply on empowering and lifting people, and that, if we did it right, it could inspire others to work along side us to do it."

In a post on LinkedIn, Smith encouraged others in leadership positions to apply. 

"In the outdoor industry, we have a tremendous amount of passion," he said. "We love our sports, we defend our public lands, and we fight for the protection of the environment. What I think we can do better is act as unifiers. We need to find ways to work better with those across the aisle. We need to build alliances with those who don’t always agree with us. This is what great leaders do, and it is something I’m committed to doing better."

Applications for the 2019 class are due by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on Aug. 31.


Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 12.57.12 PM

Meet the disruptors

Oh, 2017 you were a wild one. The outdoor industry made a loud, cohesive stand for public lands, our trade show landscape got a major shakeup, women raised their voices on gender issues, and retailers across the country struggled to stay relevant in a world where consumers are more