Ronald Reagan's Leadership Lessons

Author Margot Morrell talks about Reagan's Journey: Lessons from a Remarkable Career.

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Former President Ronald Reagan's life was the essence of the American Dream. But he didn't go from small-town boy to "leader of the free world" by accident. Reagan faced challenges of various degrees throughout his career—including a heartbreaking divorce, the loss of his Warner Bros. acting contract, and his unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1976. But he never stopped pursuing his dream, says Margot Morrell in her new book reaganReagan's Journey: Lessons from a Remarkable Career. Morrell, who worked as a personnel recruiter on Reagan's 1981 presidential transition team and is building a leadership development program at leadershiplives.com, recently spoke with U.S. News about how others can learn from the methods behind Reagan's success. Excerpts:

What made Reagan's career so remarkable?

The fascinating thing about Reagan is he's this poor kid from nowhere. At the age of 14, at a time when only 7 percent of the population goes to college, he sets his sights on going to college. Then he graduates at the dead bottom of the Depression, the summer of 1932. Unemployment is at 24 percent. And through a series of conversations with his mentor that summer, he sets his sights on getting his dream job. From that point on, he coaches himself to the top of five separate professions: radio, acting, union leader, public speaker, and then, of course, politics. [Read: Missing Reagan Speech Note Cards Found]

How did he overcome difficult points in his career?

At every single crisis point in his career, he basically takes the time to rethink his strengths. After the end of his relationship with General Electric, he goes to Arizona to a resort and rides horses, talks to a friend, and thinks about, well, what am I going to do next? What's gone right? Where have the challenges been?

Was Reagan born a great leader?

Yes, he was a great communicator; yes, he had a knack for it. But he constantly worked at it. To wrap around to your question about his leadership skills, I really think he saw what he admired in the Screen Actors Guild. The Screen Actors Guild was an absolutely first-class organization started by Hollywood stars in the 1930s. [That's] where he got this skill—he referred to it as round-tabling things. He would sit in these meetings and not say a word and let everyone talk, and then he would synthesize a response.

What were his leadership methods?

He let other people do what they did best. He didn't micromanage people. You see that in the 1966 [gubernatorial] campaign, putting together that first-class team and then unleashing them to do their best. [See photos celebrating Reagan's 100th birthday.]

How would you compare President Obama's leadership so far to Reagan's?

President Obama, before the healthcare [vote] about a year ago, called the Republicans into the Blair House meeting. Reagan always listened to people and appreciated their input, took it into account, and very mindfully would not make his own feelings known in the meetings. With President Obama, it seemed to be he was just doing this to go through the motions of, "OK, I've listened to you." But he did not seem to be valuing the opinions. Obama has a very professorial, "I'm telling you this is how it's going to be" approach, and with Reagan, it was conversation.

What could Obama learn from your book?

The value of listening to people. That's what made Reagan Reagan.

How well do today's conservatives understand Reagan and his career?

I think we're now seeing Reagan in a way that we're understanding exactly who he was. At the time, in the West he was regarded as essentially a mainstream conservative, but his joke was that, as he flew [east] over the Mississippi, he became a "kook with horns." The mainstream press really loved to portray him as this sort of right-wing extremist, which, obviously, we can now see, could hardly have been farther from the case.

What can readers learn from Reagan about starting a new career?

That it starts with focusing on your strengths. By taking the time to identify your strengths and talents, and finding an area of expertise, finding something that you enjoy doing. That it won't come easy, that it will take practicing and polishing and honing, but look for ways to try out your skills in a safe, supportive environment. Stretch yourself by taking on challenges. Seek out role models.