Leadership Lessons of Ronald Reagan

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February once offered two holidays: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12th and George Washington’s birthday on February 22nd. In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving “Washington’s Birthday” from February 22nd to the third Monday in February. Gone was “Lincoln’s Birthday” and the holiday soon became the generic “Presidents’ Day” we celebrate today (though the federal government still officially calls it “Washington’s Birthday”). It is in the spirit of “Presidents’ Day” that we mark February as “Presidents’ Month.” We will do so by devoting each weekly Commentary to the leadership lessons learned from the four presidents born in February.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. After a workmanlike acting career, Reagan served as governor of California before becoming our nation’s fortieth president. He remains one of the most popular and successful of our chief executives and is often referenced by Republicans and Democrats alike. (On a historical note, it wasn’t always that way, and those old enough to remain recall how the establishment’s reaction to Reagan’s inauguration was just as dour as what we see happening with President Trump today.)

Much has been written about Reagan’s leadership style and how it fueled consistent accomplishment. Some characterizations of Reagan unintentionally revealed the secret of Reagan’s success. One that sticks out in the mind occurred during the December 6, 1986 airing of Saturday Night Live. In the Sketch, titled “President Reagan, Mastermind,” Phil Hartman plays the president who plays dumb in public but is a brilliant mastermind behind closed doors. Little did the cast of SNL realize this was closer to the truth than many suspected. We can go into how this represents the important lesson of “never let them know how much you know,” but that lesson is a bit more nuanced and it might be better served as its own separate column.

Lesson #1: Know You Audience
There’s a story from Reagan’s days as a sports announcer that offers an important and often overlooked leadership lesson. When we think of “leader” the image (or something very close to it) that usually comes to mind has a captain or general leading his troops into battle. It sounds like the perfect operational definition of a leader: someone who leads. But there’s more to leadership than merely leading. You’ve first got to convince people to follow. The trick to this is revealed when Reagan took the microphone at the radio station that day in Iowa.

In 1932, after graduating from college, the first radio station west of the Mississippi – WOC in Davenport, Iowa – hired Reagan as an announcer. He later worked at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, an NBC affiliate. You must understand radio was the new media back then and getting into it so early is like getting a YouTube Channel in 2010. One of his jobs was to “broadcast” Chicago Cubs baseball games. How could he do this without being at the game? He’d go into the studio and read the telegraph reports as they came in. He wasn’t a real sports broadcaster, he was just acting like a real sports broadcaster. But it was radio and the audience couldn’t tell the difference.

This lesson hits home (no pun intended) in 1934 when the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals were into the ninth inning of a scoreless game. Well, I’ll let Reagan tell the rest of the story: “A cub player Billy Jurges was at bat. I saw my operator begin to type so I had the pitcher wind up and start his throw to the plate. Just then I was handed the slip of paper and it said: ‘the wire has gone dead. I had the ball on the way to the plate. The only thing I could think of that wouldn’t get into the records was a foul ball so I had Jurges foul one down the back of third base… There were several other stations broadcasting that game and I knew I’d lose my audience if I told them we’d lost our telegraph connections so I took a chance. I had (Billy) Jurges hit another foul. Then I had him foul one that only missed being a home run by a foot. I had him foul one back in the stands and took up some time describing the two lads that got in a fight over the ball. I kept on having him foul balls until I was setting a record for a ballplayer hitting successive foul balls and I was getting more than a little scared. Just then my operator started typing. When he passed me the paper I started to giggle – it said: ‘Jurges popped out on the first ball pitched.’” [From Reagan’s letter to Buzzy Sisco dated December 24, 1985.]

Reagan knew enough not to tell this story until after he stopped being a sports announcer.

Lesson #2: Play Fair
During the 1980 presidential primary the Nashua Telegraph offered to host a candidates’ debate in Nashua, New Hampshire. Days before the event, the Federal Election Commission ruled that a newspaper sponsored debate would violate election rules. While others complained, Reagan arranged to fund the debate with his own campaign money. The Telegraph would still “host” the debate, but Reagan would pay for it. Now, here’s where things got sticky. The establishment, represent by the Telegraph and George Bush, wanted this debate to be between the two leading contenders (Bush and Reagan). Reagan wanted all contenders to participate. The Telegraph refused to budge.

The argument continued, causing the debate to start 15 minutes late. First George Bush entered. A few moments later, Ronald Reagan comes in – with four of the other five contenders (the fifth being out of state). When Reagan tried one final time to convince Jon Breen, the debate moderator and editor of the Telegraph ordered Reagan’s microphone turned off. The crowd hissed, and when Breen continued to interrupt, Reagan turned towards him and sternly said, “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Breen.” The crowd erupted with applause.

Reagan didn’t win that battle, but by standing up for the other candidates, he earned their respect and won the war. This is what two of the candidates said immediately afterward: Senator Howard Baker said, “I do not plan on George Bush being the nominee. He is not wearing that crown very well.” Senator Robert Dole said, “I’ll never understand George Bush’s attitude as long as I live. They stiffed us.”

Reagan had all the cards – he paid for the microphone – so he easily could have tilted the playing field in his favor and shut out the other candidates. By doing the right thing – playing fair – he proved he was a good sport. Bush was close to Reagan before this debate. After Reagan stood up to the Telegraph, it was a blowout. Here’s the kicker, the debate wasn’t televised and very few people actually saw it live. But Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone” played repeatedly on the news shows, allowing more people to see it, not just in New Hampshire, but all across the country. His ability to get his story into the media news cycle has been repeated by every presidential campaign since. Trump, however, took Reagan’s media strategy to the power of ten.

Lesson #3: Have the Guts to Walk Away from a Bad Deal.
You may or may not have heard of the Strategic Defense Initiative or “SDI.” The media mockingly called it “Star Wars.” The idea was simple: If we can’t prevent our enemies from firing missiles at us, then the least we could do was develop a technology to shoot them down. Everyone thought this was a futuristic idea in the 1980s. Except the Soviet Union. They understood not only was it possible, but they didn’t have the resources to develop it and they would be at a disadvantage if America had it and they didn’t. We could say this is an example of a leader “having a clear vision,” which Reagan certainly did, but the lesson goes much deeper.

At that point in 1986, the prevailing geopolitical view was to seek to reduce missile count if not ban outright all ballistic missiles. Reagan kept harping on the Russian adage “trust but verify” as a counter to relying on such negotiated treaties. He felt the one sure thing to prevent a nuclear war was to have a defense system capable of stopping missiles – and with nuclear missiles just one is bad enough – before they could do damage. Nonetheless, Reagan continued to negotiate, and on October 11th and 12th of 1986, he met with Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The two held a summit in Reykjavík, Iceland. After two days of dramatic negotiations, Gorbachev agreed to ban all ballistic missiles. But for a price. He wanted Reagan to limit SDI research to the laboratory. Reagan countered that this was not realistic and offered to share SDI with the Soviets. Gorbachev insisted on limiting SDI. In the end, Reagan walked away, vilified by the press for turning down the opportunity for an historic agreement.

By walking away, the Soviet Union had to continue military funding levels that exceeded the capacity of their economy. While walking away from the Reykjavik Summit ultimately led to substantial arms deals, there was a greater value. By saying “No” in Reykjavik, Reagan forced the Soviet Union to bankrupt itself, causing the collapse of the communist nation, the end of the Cold War, and the ensuing decade-long “peace dividend” as the economy of the United States soared through the 1990s.

True leaders understand victory is not secured by today’s headlines, but by tomorrow’s history textbooks. That’s why it’s important to have the guts to walk away from a bad deal, no matter how good it seems in the moment.

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