Reagan as leader: flawed, triumphant

July 12, 1998|By Lars-Eric Nelson | Lars-Eric Nelson,Special to the Sun

"Reagan on Leadership: Executive Lessons from the Great Communicator," by James M. Strock. Forum. 272 pages. $22.

If a leader's abilities are measured by the number, fidelity and intensity of his or her followers, Ronald Reagan ranks as one of the all-time greats. It is not yet 10 years since he left Washington and already the city's airport and largest office building have been named after him. Harry S Truman, by contrast, has nothing. Republicans to this day vie for the right to assume Reagan's mantle and push his agenda: low taxes, less regulation, smaller government and a strong defense - even in the absence of any major enemies.

We can learn much from Reagan's leadership style, a relaxed, graceful, humorous contrast to the deadly workaholism of his predecessors, contemporaries and successors. I remember meeting him for a breakfast in the White House; it was scheduled for 9 a.m. and when he showed up a few minutes late, his hair was still wet from the shower. He slept until 9 a.m. the morning of his first inauguration, while his fussbudget predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was up all night trying at long range to shepherd U.S. hostages out of Iran.

Reagan focused on big, simple but important themes and left the details to subordinates. He was a magnificent public speaker with a professional's sense of how to look into a camera and how to let the microphone do the work. For all his apparent personal warmth, he was an unusually tough negotiator on issues he cared about. Above all, he conveyed a presence, an aloofness that preserved the dignity of his office even in his worst moments.

"Reagan on Leadership" recalls these and other good qualities, but it is a book for Reagan fans, especially those who remember the Reagan years with a golden glow. Some of its lessons are indisputable: Be Decisive. Make Meetings Useful. Others are easier said than done: Craft a Compelling Vision. Become a Skilled Communicator.

Reagan's flaws as a leader are usefully cited as well. He was passive to the point of laziness, allowing his chief of staff Jim Baker to exchange jobs with his Treasury secretary, Donald Regan, without more than a moment's thought. Author Strock also praises Reagan for leading by indirection, but he could be so indirect that subordinates like Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and National Security aide Oliver North found themselves working in completely opposite directions, each -Z convinced that he was carrying out Reagan's real intentions.

Strock also omits major management gaffes. Reagan, as commander in chief, took full blame for the 1983 terrorist attack in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen. He thought this was a noble gesture, but by making it he precluded the U.S. military from exercising its own discipline. He also appeared to think he ++ could wing an arms-control agreement with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev without doing any homework.

As president, Reagan had an asset that will be denied to other managers who try to model themselves after him: In times of difficulty, he could appeal to the public. With that reservoir of public goodwill, it did not matter that his political opponents, and even some of his supporters (like Regan), regarded him with contempt. And few business executives will be allowed to run up the kind of debts Reagan piled on the federal government with a smile, an optimistic forecast, a reference to the economic theories of Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun and a promise to the )) public that it would all work out in the end. Stockholders are not that patient.

Still, "Reagan on Leadership" contains useful reminders. Chief among them: An amiable human being was able to run the country for eight years, and leave generally pleasant memories behind.

Lars-Eric Nelson is a Washington columnist for the New Yor Daily News and has written for the New York Review of Books.

! Pub Date: 7/12/98

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