Jun 7 2004

Lessons from the Gipper

There’s been much coverage in the news of Saturday’s passing of President Ronald Reagan, but I will add a new wrinkle by trying to distill down what I know and remember of The Great Communicator’s leadership style into a few simple lessons of note for CEOs.

Lesson 1: Sunny optimism motivates the people you lead, but only when it’s balanced with hard-headed realism. Reagan’s message that tomorrow can be a better day than today was powerful and timely for the American psyche, but he didn’t just assume that because he said it, it would be true. He backed up his message with (a) an understanding that the American economy itself was in the doldrums in the late ’70s, and (b) policies designed to fix the economy. Whether you agree with those policies or not, you have to respect the fact that Reagan as a leader wasn’t just talk — he combined the talk with reality-based action. That’s super important when communicating key messages to a company of any size.

Lesson 2: Simplicity of messaging beats out measured intellectualism in broad-based communications. Reagan’s view of the 40-year-old Cold War when he took office was “we will win, and they will lose.” Much easier to rally around than messages of detente and containment (this quote came from an editorial by former Reagan staffer Peter Robinson in today’s Wall St. Journal). Similarly, the bigger and more diverse the group you’re talking to inside your company or in a speech or in the press, the more important it is to boil your key message down to something people can easily take away with them and repeat at home later to their spouse or friends.

Lesson 3: Nobody’s perfect, and you don’t have to be perfect either. He may have been, electorally, the most popular president of our generation, but Reagan certainly had his many and sometimes glaring faults. History will acknowledge his faults but overall judge him on his performance. It was noted (also in today’s Journal, I think) that Reagan got a lot of little things wrong, but in the end, he will be remembered because he got a few big things very, very right. Perfection is something that most mortals can’t achieve, certainly not in a high profile position like President or CEO of anything, whether a 10-person startup or a nation.

Love him or hate him, the man was one of the most prominent leaders of our time. I’m sure there are more lessons from Reagan’s legacy than these three for CEOs, but this is a start, anyway.