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02.06.11

Ronald Reagan on Leadership

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, was born one hundred years ago today, February 6. In nearly every poll he is regarded, with Washington and Lincoln, as one of the three best presidents America has ever had. This is due in large part because he governed with focused self-confidence and he never considered his position to place him above those he led.

In her memoir, Personal History, the late Katharine Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, tells a story about a dinner at her home attended by the Reagans and others in November 1988. When the Reagans arrived they were surrounded by well-wishing friends. Graham remembers that after someone knocked against a glass and spilled a drink, “I was dumbstruck,” she recalls, “at seeing the president of the United States down on his hands and knees in the middle of the crowd, picking up the ice.” Reagan possessed a servant quality that resonated with millions of people in America and abroad.

On Vision:
  • To grasp and hold a vision, that is the very essence of successful leadership - not only on the movie set where I learned it, but everywhere. (Remarks at a Luncheon Hosted by Artists and Cultural Leaders in Moscow, May 31, 1988)
On Communication:
  • Most often it’s not how handsomely or eloquently you say something, but the fact that your words mean something. (An American Life)
  • I won a nickname, "The Great Communicator." But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: it was the content. I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn't spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I'll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense. (Farewell Address January 11, 1989)
On Negotiation:
  • I don't take too seriously the statement of positions in advance of negotiations. Everyone wants to preserve their position at their highest price before negotiations, and for them to do otherwise is to give away something they might not have to give away once the negotiations start. (Question-and-Answer Session, February 23, 1983)
  • You’re unlikely to get all you want; you’ll probably get more of what you want if you don’t issue ultimatums and leave your adversary room to maneuver; you shouldn’t back your adversary into a corner, embarrass him, or humiliate him; and sometimes, the easiest way to get things done is for the top people to do them alone and in private. (An American Life)
On Mistakes:
  • Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That's the healthiest way to deal with a problem. (Speech about Iran Contra, March 4, 1987)
On Leadership:
  • The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things. (Interview with Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes, December 14, 1975)
  • Our people look to us for leadership and nobody can provide it if we don’t. But we won’t be very effective leaders unless we can rise above the specific but secondary concerns that preoccupy our respective bureaucracies and give our governments a strong push in the right direction. (An American Life)
  • Somebody once said that life begins when you begin to serve. Maybe if there’s a feeling that you can be of service then you feel you have to do it. (Interview with Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes, December 14, 1975)
  • If no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? (First inaugural address as governor of California, January 5, 1967)
On Compromise:
  • The minute you begin saying, ‘This is good or bad politically,’ you start compromising principle. The only consideration I want to hear is whether it is good or bad for the people.” (An American Life)
On Courage:
  • Don’t be afraid to see what you see. (Farewell Address January 11, 1989)
On Management:
  • I don’t believe a chief executive should supervise every detail of what goes on in his organization. The chief executive should set broad policy and general ground rules, tell people what he or she wants them to do, then let them do it. He should make himself (or herself) available, so that the members of his team can come to him if there is a problem. If there is, you can work on it together and, if necessary, fine-tune the policies. But I don’t think a chief executive should peer constantly over the shoulders of the people who are in charge of a project and tell them every few minutes what to do. (An American Life)
  • Set clear goals and appoint good people to help you achieve them. As long as they are doing what you have in mind, don’t interfere, but if somebody drops the ball, intervene and make a change. (An American Life)
  • Much has been said about my management style, a style that's worked successfully for me during 8 years as Governor of California and for most of my Presidency. The way I work is to identify the problem, find the right individuals to do the job, and then let them go to it. I've found this invariably brings out the best in people. They seem to rise to their full capability, and in the long run you get more done. (Speech about Iran Contra, March 4, 1987)
On Counsel:
  • I told the cabinet members that I didn't want them to speak up only on the matters that affected their own departments. They were all my advisors, I said, and I wanted to hear everything that each of them had to say about whatever topic we were considering, whether it involved their department or not, including any reservations they might have about a proposal; this gave me the opportunity to get opinions from a variety of perspectives, not only from the people who might be supporting a certain project or program. (An American Life)

Reagan believed that it is important for a leader to rise above secondary concerns to remain consistent and focused. His most important task was keeping his staff focused despite daily distractions. One of his aides recalled: "It was striking how often we on the staff would become highly agitated by the latest news bulletins. Reagan saw the same events as nothing more than a bump in the road; things would get better tomorrow. His horizons were just not the same as ours."

James Strock sums it up well in his book, Reagan on Leadership: “As with all leaders of consequence, Reagan’s ability to lead others was an outgrowth of his ability to govern himself.”

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Of Related Interest:
  Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library

Posted by Michael McKinney at 12:15 PM
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