Management by Ronald Reagan


Many people who worked for Ronald Reagan thought that “the boss” was a gifted government executive. Many people think that business leaders can learn a few things from the late president. If you step beyond the politics and study the behavior, you will find core lessons in effective management style.

Looking through some of the nearly three decades of notes I have taken on the subject of leadership and management, I found a summary of an article or presentation by Washington University Professor Murray Wedinbaum. I am not sure how old these notes are, but they are of mid-1990s vintage. The article listed 10 lessons on management, which I will share here.

  1. Set clear and attainable objectives, but choose goals that seem difficult to achieve. Reagan set his sights in 1981 on a stronger economy with lower inflation and lower unemployment. The cynical only thought in terms of trade-offs between more jobs and a slower rise in prices. Not only did Reagan push for substantial cuts in taxes, he made adjustments in economic policy, including painful spending cuts and a tight monetary policy. In the long run, Reagan's actions stopped the double-digit inflation.The leaders we most admire are the ones who accomplish what they set out to do. They make a warrior's commitment to fight until they achieve victory. They don't set out to do the impossible, but they boldly urge us to reach for the possible.
  2. Surround yourself with people who share your views and outlook. In today's leadership circles, a lot of value is placed on diversity of thought. While a great deal of value can come from different outlooks on a problem, other problems will arise when subordinates do not share their leader’s views and values. If the people advising the leader do not share that leader’s core values, the seeds of mistrust can be planted.
  3. Give the troops lots of leeway and operating authority. Don't be a rubber stamp, but don't try to micromanage the decision-making of your subordinates. Coach them, guide them, instill in them a deep understanding of your leadership vision—and then trust them to follow through. Hold them accountable for the results, but give them the discretion to choose how the details are executed.
  4. Back your people with strength, especially when they are attacked for carrying out your policies. When you assign a mission to one of your subordinates, and you are obeying lessons two and three above, the worst thing a leader can do is fail to back that subordinate. Gifted leaders never fail to provide backup when a subordinate is attacked for carrying out an assignment.
  5. Use humor to good effect. Ronald Reagan loved to tell funny stories. Reagan was too polite to tell some boring person to shut up. So he would interrupt by telling a story, shifting the discussion to another subject in the process. He also injected humor when staff debates would get too heated.
  6. Communicate clearly both within the organization and to the larger public. Reagan is known as the "Great Communicator," but communication is not an effortless task. Reagan would work hard to get input on his speeches from multiple viewpoints within his administration. He wrote his own speeches so they sounded like Ronald Reagan's speeches, but he would always work with his speechwriting staff to ensure the accuracy and clarity of his public speaking. He liked to see things in writing, and would often ask for single-page memoranda on specific topics. His belief was that if you could not specifically outline a problem and its solution on a single page, you hadn't thought about the problem enough.
  7. Let your staff do the worrying. Reagan took the presidency very seriously, and spent hours in the evening reading reports and memos. Following item number three from above, Reagan coached his subordinates to take care of the details and worry about the execution. After making a decision, Reagan never stewed about it. He quickly went on to the next item of business.
  8. Maintain an upbeat and positive attitude. Reagan was able to maintain internal enthusiasm and generate external support for many of his policy changes with his upbeat and positive attitude. He knew what to say and when to say it, and he said it in a way that would reassure and comfort those who reported to him—and the general public. After he was shot, Reagan said to his wife, "Sorry, honey, I forgot to duck." That one wisecrack did more to reassure a concerned public than all the medical reports.
  9. Distinguish between opponents and enemies. It was not in Reagan's nature to maintain an enemies list. Some have said that he did not know how to hate. He understood that today's opponents on one issue might become tomorrow's supporters on another, as long as he did not treat them as enemies.
  10. Maintain some distance from your subordinates. Reagan was very cordial and caring toward those who worked under him. But he also understood that he was their leader, not a buddy or a friend.

What do you think of this list? What would you add?

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