As we mark the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s centenary it is
important to remember what he taught us about what it means to lead.
When Reagan became President in 1981, the prime rate topped
20% and would rise even higher. A lingering recession kept unemployment rates
higher than normal, 7.5% in 1981. It was the worst recession since the Great
Depression. Many businesses could not seem to find a way to compete against
more agile and quality-conscious competitors from Japan. To many Americans it had
seemed we had lost our way, especially in the wake of the Iranian hostage
Yet none of this could extinguish Reagan’s faith in the
nation and in its people. After all, Reagan’s gift was not just an upbeat
attitude; it was his salesmanship of the American dream. Yes, he was a great
communicator. And he worked hard at it. [Now that we have access to his
correspondence we see what a prolific writer he truly was.]
The salesmanship came from selling the American people on
the same dream that Franklin Roosevelt, a Reagan hero, had sold to us in the
depths of the Great Depression. We can succeed if we put our minds to it.
Kenneth Duberstein, a former Chief of Staff to Reagan, put it best when he said
that Reagan got us to believe in ourselves again. People believe in themselves
and in a cause greater than themselves they can achieve great things–as long
as they have a well-intentioned leader to point them in the right direction.
But Reagan was no happy-go lucky salesman. He was not afraid
to make unpopular decisions. As a proponent of smaller government, he lowered
the top income tax rate (from 70% to 29%), but he also raised taxes eleven
times and increased the size of federal government. The national debt also
nearly tripled under his tenure. As presidential historian Douglas Brinkley
told CBS News, “Ronald Reagan was
never afraid to raise taxes. He knew that it was necessary at times.”
It takes a strong leader one confident in his own
convictions to persuade others to follow his lead, even when he sometimes might
deviate from a desired goal. That does not make him less credible; it makes him
a pragmatist. And I would argue that when trust their leader they will grant
him discretion to make hard choices.
No president, no leader for that matter, can accomplish much
by himself. He or she must harness the power of others, to bring people to
common cause. Reagan was the master at this. His positivism was contagious.
Even his political enemies, notably Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, liked him
personally. Reagan’s winning personality even softened the stiff diplomacy of
the Soviets. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev did not like Reagan at first but in time
found him impossible to dislike personally, even when they could not agree over
limiting the number of nuclear weapons.
Getting others to see the virtues of your point of view is
what every leader must strive to achieve. And when leaders face long odds it
may do them well to recall the example of our former president who sought when
possible to look on the bright side because to do otherwise was for him to give
in to the forces of defeatism.
Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant,
executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John
one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s new book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s