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Timeless Leadership from Ronald Reagan

July 2, 2024

This week we celebrate Independence Day.

We live in a time of increased polarization, especially when it comes to our politics. That division leads to a more negative self perception of our country. In spite of that, it is worth remembering that we live in a country that people are trying to get into, not get out of.

I know what you’re thinking. “Kevin, I can’t read another word about politics.” But this post isn’t about politics. It is about learning leadership from America’s greatest leaders.

Today, I want to focus on one of my favorite presidents, Ronald Reagan. His ability to inspire, connect, and lead is undeniable. As part of a leadership series I was recording, I had a chance to visit the Reagan Library in California several years ago, and was reminded of four key leadership lessons we can glean from Reagan’s approach:

Leaders Cast Clear Vision

Great leaders understand the power of vision to motivate and mobilize people. Reagan excelled at articulating a compelling future that resonated deeply with his audience. His vision for America as a “beacon of hope and democracy” wasn’t just rhetoric – it was a call to action that inspired millions.

Reagan’s famous declaration at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” exemplifies the boldness and clarity of his vision. In today’s world of diplomatic nuance, such directness might seem jarring. Yet, there’s an undeniable power in leaders who can articulate their goals with such precision and conviction. If you have a minute, you can hear more of the story here:

People are drawn to leaders who can paint a vivid picture of a better future and invite others to help create it.

Leaders Create Connections

Reagan’s ability to forge genuine connections with people from all walks of life was legendary. He chose to attend Eureka College, a co-educational school open to a diverse community of students and only one of a few such institutions at the time. While there, he befriended Willie Sue Smith, the first African American female to graduate from college. Smith would help Reagan pass notes between he and his girlfriend during class.

Another story that exemplifies his relatability comes days after he was shot. He accidentally spilled some water on the floor in his hospital room. He was caught on his hands and knees wiping up the water and said that he wanted to clean it up, so his nurse wouldn’t be blamed for the mess. Proverbs 18:12 says, “Humility comes before honor,” and Reagan was a man that lived out this principle.

Reagan understood that true leadership isn’t about elevating yourself, but about lifting others. His relatability wasn’t just a political asset – it was a fundamental aspect of his character that allowed him to bridge divides and build trust.

As leaders, we must remember that our ability to connect with others on a human level is often more impactful than any policy or strategy we might devise.

Leaders Choose to be Optimistic

Reagan’s unwavering optimism became a hallmark of his leadership style. His forward-looking attitude, encapsulated in statements like “Like most Americans, I live for the future,” set a tone of possibility and progress.

This doesn’t mean Reagan ignored challenges or difficulties. Rather, he chose to focus on potential solutions and opportunities. In times of uncertainty or setback, a leader’s optimism can be a powerful force for maintaining morale and momentum.

Leaders have the power to shape the emotional climate of our teams and organizations. In times of uncertainty or setback, a leader’s optimism can be a powerful force for maintaining morale and momentum. Coupled with determined action, optimism inspires others to persevere and achieve more than they thought possible.

Leaders Have Consistent Character

Perhaps Reagan’s most enduring leadership quality was his consistency of character. 

Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s speechwriter, said it best:

“In a president, character is everything. A president doesn’t have to be brilliant; Harry Truman wasn’t brilliant, and he helped save Western Europe from Stalin. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. White Houses are always full of quick-witted people with ready advice on how to flip a senator or implement a strategy. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks, but you can’t buy courage and decency; you can’t rent a strong moral sense. A president must bring those things with him.”

Reagan’s dedication to his core values and principles provided a stable foundation for his leadership. In a world of shifting priorities and pressures, his consistency built trust and respect, even among those who disagreed with his policies.

Leadership isn’t confined to political office or executive suites. Each of us has the opportunity to lead in our own spheres of influence – whether that’s in our families, communities, or workplaces. I challenge you to embrace these principles in your own leadership journey.

The world needs good leaders now more than ever. Will you answer the call?

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