• A place at the table for Macedonia | September, 2010
• Morten Harket Sings a New Song | November, 2007
• Bryan Ferry in a New Town | October, 2007
• In Search of a Midnight Sun | June, 2006
• Decade | June, 2006
• The Leadership of Ronald Reagan | June, 2004
• Where the Monks Drive Range Rovers | December, 2000


The Leadership of Ronald Reagan
June, 2004


Ronald Reagan was a born leader. Or at least he seemed to have been born one. I happen to believe that leaders are made, over time, and not born, but Reagan just seemed to exude a natural style of leadership that was just, well, natural. Perhaps that’s because he was born in 1911 – a long time ago by anybody’s standards – and we didn’t see him grow up, learning the lessons of leadership the hard way, which quite honestly, is the only way that true leaders do.

Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Reagan’s political soul mate – next to Nancy, of course – once said “Being in power is like being a lady. If you have to remind people that you are, you aren’t.” Reagan never had to remind people he was in power because he had something many powerful people do not: authority. And he had authority because he knew how to lead. Reagan knew that you manage things and you lead people. He knew that leadership is not about the self, but it is about self-sacrifice. He knew leadership is about putting the interests of those you serve above your own interests. He knew that leadership is not about “me” it’s about “you.” In early 1981 he said ‘...there is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit.’ It wasn’t about him.

He practiced leadership, which can be defined as the skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good. He influenced those around him by meeting their legitimate needs, while giving them a vision for an America that had strength, coupled with temperance, and pride, leveled by humility. And his vision set a nation – and a world – on fire for freedom.

Ronald Reagan took the United States of America to new highs at a time when his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had said that America was in a great “malaise.” He restored hope in America, first, and then he used the authority he had built up to declare communism and the Soviet Union an “evil empire” before proceeding to dismantle it – all without firing a shot. He gave millions around the world freedom and he changed a generation for the better. It’s too bad that today we – especially those of us in the United States of America – seem to be squandering away the moral authority he gave us.

“Dutch,” as he was known by his nickname, grew up a nobody in a forgetful town in Illinois, the son of a shoe salesman father and a saint for a mother. He never had much and he never seemed to want much other than a shot at Hollywood. After a brief stint at radio broadcasting, he got his shot at Hollywood and ended up being a good actor – not a great one. Later in life his enemies would deride him for his acting but I don’t think he cared much about their barbs and slings. His acting was not what gave him meaning or his identity just as he never really needed the presidency, like some seem to, to define himself. His identity and his meaning were given to him by a loving mother who inculcated certain values and beliefs in him. His father, too, taught him life’s valuable lessons and even though he had problems with alcohol, he taught his young son the value of hard work and the need to respect all people.

All of life is relational and Reagan learned, early on, the value and importance of relationships. Truly great leaders are skilled at building healthy relationships and Reagan seemed to know that a poor relationship is at the heart of almost any problem, be it in a marriage, a business, a friendship or in church. Perhaps the young Reagan learned this partly as a result of his divorce with his first wife. Perhaps it was a result of disputes between the Reagan children and their father. Whatever the reason, Reagan learned from his mistakes and worked to build positive, successful relationships.

Reagan worked hard on relationships with people he came into contact with. While he was comfortable with presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, he was most contended and at ease with the ordinary, every-day Americans he met on his travels. He enjoyed a good story and a good joke and he was known to play practical jokes on his staff. He was never afraid to indulge in self-deprecating humor, and his wit and humor helped him build his relationships, often disarming his enemies.

And Reagan’s good relationships with people did not stop with those he worked with or those he cared about. He built good relationships even with his political enemies. He respected them, he respected their dignity as human beings, he listened to them and he communicated with them as he did with everyone he came into contact with. On the one occasion that I actually had a discussion with him, he proved to be an excellent listener, staring intently into my eyes, communicating directly with me, as an individual. Mother Theresa once said that the greatest human need is the need to be needed. If so, and I believe it is, Ronald Reagan made you feel like you were the only person in the world when he listened to you.

He had famous disputes with his political enemies in Washington, DC including the then speaker of the US House of Representatives, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. But they were both Irishmen, enjoyed a good pint, and as Reagan used to quip, “After six p.m., we’re all friends.” Leadership at work, building relationships.

Perhaps his best-known relationship was the one with his best friend, his soul-mate and his wife, Nancy. Their love relationship transcended all. And it really is love, after all, that defines a true leader. I’m not talking about love as in the noun, the feeling. The “puppy love” that two teenagers feel for each other is here today, and gone tomorrow like the grass in the field. That’s because it is conditional. It is the type of love that says “I love you because….” fill in the blank. The love that Ronald Reagan practiced, for his beloved Nancy, for those who worked for him and for his fellow citizens, was the type of love that is unconditional. It is love the verb. It is the love rooted in behavior toward others without regard to their due. It is the love of deliberate choice. When Jesus of Nazareth spoke of “love” in the New Testament Gospels, this is the word he used. And Ronald Reagan, who loved Jesus, knew this. Love is not how you feel toward others, it is how you behave toward others. It takes an effort.

We cannot always control the way we feel towards people but we can control the way we behave towards people. American football legend Vince Lombardi said “I don’t necessarily have to like my players and associates but as the leader I must love them. Love is loyalty, love is teamwork, love respects the dignity of the individual. This is the strength of any organization.” Ronald Reagan exuded this type of love.

He followed the advice of a leader who wrote about love almost 2,000 years ago in a letter to his charges. In the letter, this writer laid out several behaviors that would govern our lives if we truly loved: patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty and commitment. Reagan exhibited all of these behaviors.

Ronald Reagan was a servant leader. He knew that in order to lead, one must first serve. He certainly did this in life. He gave up his career in Hollywood to take the reins of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). As president of the SAG, he became exposed to the political side of life and learned more about the other great “ism” – communism – and pledged to fight it. He gave up a lucrative position with General Electric hosting a TV series and launched into politics where he ran for governor of California. After serving two terms as governor, he stayed in the political arena and was elected twice to serve as President of the United States of America. He reinvigorated the Republican Party and gave birth, along with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, to the modern day conservative movement.

Reagan was often said, by his enemies, to be stupid. It was said that he knew only about a few issues and that he was not a detail guy. On the latter I would agree. On the former I would say that he was anything but stupid. Genius does not come from knowing all there is to know about any particular issue. Genius, in my opinion, comes from knowing how to deal with and lead people.

Reagan – like many great leaders – worked with a small cadre of trusted individuals. He had his mind set on a few issues, all very important ones, and he had a certain set of values and beliefs – rooted deeply in his belief and trust in God – that guided everything else. He gave direction to his people and let them worry about the details. He led his people; his people managed the details. He gave of himself to his people, to the American people and to the people of the world. He loved by serving and sacrificing. He built authority with people and he earned the right to be called “leader.”

Although he has gone home, those of us left behind, for now, can learn from his example. We too, can be leaders, in whatever we do, whatever line of work we choose, whether we are students, stay at home spouses, businessmen, clergy, teachers, service providers or…politicians. But it takes constant effort and focus. It takes the heart of a servant and it is a labor of love.

This was the leadership of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

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