Ronald Reagan is the first president I really remember. He was sworn into office when I was 10 years old, and I vividly remember that day. I remember the release of the Iran hostages that took place the day he was sworn in, and I remember that there was a sense of hope and excitement that filled the nation, much like there was the day President Obama was sworn in earlier this year.
By many accounts, President Reagan is listed among the greatest presidents of the 20th century. During his two terms, the Cold War ended and the economy began an upswing that set the table for the incredible prosperity of the 1990s. Reagan was truly a leader among leaders.
In his book, Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton, David Gergen says, “Reagan wasn’t just comfortable in his own skin. He was serene. And he had a clear sense of what he was trying to accomplish. Those were among his greatest strengths as a leader.” Here are some of the other leadership lessons Gergen learned while serving on President Reagan’s staff:
Communication is key.
Even Reagan’s harshest critics agree that – at the very least – Reagan was a great communicator. He knew how to put his listeners at ease enabling them to stop worrying about the man they were hearing and pay attention to what he was saying. He was also a master at using humor at just the right moment to break the tension and lighten the mood. During the 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale, Reagan appeared in the first debate looking horribly old. Afterward, the press had a field day with the photos and began asking if Reagan was too old to serve as president for a second term. At the next debate, Reagan was asked point blank if he was too old to be president, and he was ready to answer. “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience!”
Gergen also reports that when it came to giving speeches, Reagan knew – and practiced – every trick of the trade. They are: prepare carefully, keep it short and brisk, use the language of the living room, look for a catchy fact, use the occasional prop, be positive, anticipate the critics, and have a good closer. If you watch the footage of of any of the many speeches Reagan gave while in office, you’ll see many of these “tricks” in play.
Leadership requires great courage.
Even though Reagan was the oldest man elected president (69 years old), his broad shoulders, thick chest, and square jaw gave him the look of a rugged and courageous leader – one that you felt comfortable following. He personified the rugged, American tough guy – the real “Marlboro Man.” Reagan not only looked like a courageous man, but he led with courage, and he even responded to great adversity with courage.
On March 30, 1981, Reagan experienced the defining moment of his presidency and of his life. On that day, he was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin. From the video footage, it was not clear that Reagan had been shot. In the chaos, he had been forcefully shoved into his limo by secret service agents. Cameras were waiting when Reagan’s limo pulled up to the hospital doors. Climbing out of the car, he waved off help. Instinctively, he buttoned his suit jacket (which was a small but telling gesture about his sense of the presidency), smiled and waved at the cameras, and walked through the emergency room doors. Just inside the doors and out of the view of the cameras, he collapsed. A bullet was lodged within an inch of his heart.
During the hours that followed, the president hovered close to death, and it was only later – after he had recovered – that the country found out how close to death he really was. This was his defining moment as a courageous leader in the eyes of many Americans. To a great many, especially working people, Reagan was now the courageous president who had taken a bullet – and smiled!
A great leader is one who is steady in his or her core beliefs.
One of the marks of a great leader is whether he or she has a sense of conviction and can hold to it. The leader can be flexible in the means of getting there but must be firm about direction and outcomes. Reagan held to a set of core beliefs that were not popular in the 60’s and 70’s, but by the end of those turbulent decades, Americans were ready to embrace them.
Agree or disagree, these were Reagan’s core beliefs…and he stuck to them over the eight years in office: America is a chosen nation with a special mission, America should be number one not number two, strength matters, freedom matters, and values matter.
In an age where our public leaders seem to waffle on their convictions and beliefs in order to appease the masses, Reagan’s steadiness related to his beliefs is refreshing, even if one doesn’t agree with all of them. Gergen also reports that he witnessed occasions where some of Reagan’s staff members lied, but never did he see or hear of Reagan intentionally misleading anyone during his tenure on Reagan’s staff. Reagan proved that a great leader is one who leads with integrity and conviction.