Ronald Reagan’s Chief Strategist Dick Wirthlin walked into the Oval Office and found President Reagan at his desk holding a photograph.
“Mr. President, what’s that?”
“Well, Dick, I just got off the phone with this young man.”
As the President turned the photograph around, Dick winced at the haunting image staring him in the face. It was the picture of a 12-year-old boy who had been severely burned while attempting to rescue his two younger brothers when their family’s trailer caught fire. While frantically searching through the flaming trailer, the young man sustained severe burns before carrying his siblings to safety. As a result, the boy’s face and body had been seriously scarred and disfigured.
“I called this little fella to see how he was doing and to tell him how proud I was of his heroism,” Reagan said.
He then looked back down at the little boy’s visage. “Dick, at the end of our conversation the youngster said, ‘President Reagan, I sure wish I would have had my tape recorder on so I could remember our call together.’
So I said, ‘Do you have it there?’ He said he did. So I told him, ‘Well, son, turn it on and let’s chat some more.”
Did you catch that? “Let’s chat some more.” This is the language of leadership. These aren’t the words of a great communicator. These are the words of one of the greatest communicators.
Three Core Lessons
Ronald Reagan taught us three core lessons that all leaders must embrace.
Lesson 1: Issues Change, Values Endure
Ronald Reagan believed values are the lynchpins of effective persuasion. The reason: while issues change, values endure.
New challenges emerge—sometimes daily. This constant state of flux can create uncertainty about how the leader will respond. If, however, he or she is guided by a core set of beliefs that have been articulated consistently, you can know the direction your leader’s decision making “compass” is likely to point. By knowing a leader’s values, you know where they will lead, regardless of shifting circumstances.
This assumes, of course, that the leader has identified his or her guiding values and embedded them in their communications. While this requires thought, the rewards can be immense.
When it was time to devise his 1980 acceptance address for the Republican National Convention, Reagan designed his speech around three value-laden institutions and two core values: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.
Once Reagan was finished, the nation had a firm grasp of who Reagan was and where he wanted to lead.
Lesson 2: Persuade through Reason, Motivate through Emotion
You can persuade through reason, but you motivate through emotion. How? By doing what Ronald Reagan did best: using stories to showcase values and frame his vision.
Even during his days as a radio sports announcer and spokesperson for General Electric, Ronald Reagan always loaded his speeches with stories that illustrated his values. He was never the focal point of the stories. Instead, he told stories that exemplified his values while elevating the importance of others and their contributions. This leadership trait was summarized in the placard on his desk: “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Reagan believed that sincere emotion was the spark that ignites the fuse of action. Many leaders feel uncomfortable infusing emotion into their communications, but ignoring this element is a mistake. People don’t just want to make intellectual connections; they want to experience emotional ones as well. To be sure, leaders can go overboard in their use of emotion by banging the drum of values too forcefully. But the greater danger is to appeal only to the mind and to ignore the heart. Ronald Reagan knew how to balance the two.
Lesson 3: Humor Makes a Human Connection
Ronald Reagan loved to laugh and tell jokes. It revealed his core love of people, and he used it to build bridges between people, even those with whom he disagreed. Still, his use of humor was often strategic.
Take, for example, Reagan’s second debate with Walter Mondale. After their first debate, some questioned whether Reagan was too old to serve a second term. When the question about his age came up, Reagan delivered one of the most famous lines in presidential debate history: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The line was a masterstroke, and it was all his own. Reagan had displayed self-deprecation and supreme confidence while defusing a divisive issue.
The Greatest Communicator has now exited the stage. Yet in his passing he has left behind a legacy of leadership. Americans rate Ronald Reagan as the greatest president in American history. But while politics was one of Reagan’s passions, it was not his greatest passion. This he reserved for people.
Reagan took time out of his day to invest in people and make them feel special. You can do the same.
Recommended Reading: Ronald Reagan