Up front, I need to acknowledge that I do not share James Strock’s high regard for Ronald Reagan’s performance as governor of California and then as president of the United States. I certainly don’t agree with Tom Peters who (in the Foreword to this book) observes, “there is no doubt in my mind that the most effective by far [of 12 American presidencies he has lived through] is that of Ronald Wilson Reagan.” To make that ludicrous assertion is comparable with insisting that William Jefferson Clinton was primarily responsible for the record federal and international trade surpluses that developed during his two terms or that George Herbert Bush is primarily to blame for the record federal and international trade deficits that developed during his two terms. In my opinion. all three were mediocre presidents, at best.
I gave this book a Five Star rating because I think it is well-written, carefully organized, and achieves its stated objective: To identify and discuss what executive lessons can be learned from the 40th president of the United States. In fact, there are several and Strock organizes them within four separate but interdependent groups: leadership, management, communication, and self-management. There are clusters of them listed at the conclusion of each chapter. Specific lessons are best revealed with Strock’s narrative but I will share this opinion that all of them are eminently sound. Their value, I hasten to add, will be wholly determined by ultimate objective and by the means by which that objective is achieved.
As I read this book what I found especially fascinating are the paradoxes that his leadership suggests. Here are five among those that Strock cites:
1. His values were those of a traditionalist but he was dedicated to change in himself, his country, and indeed the world.
2. He defined and embodied late-20th century conservatism but habitually cited Thomas Paine’s claim, “We can make the world again.”
3. To date, he was the oldest president and yet had a special bond with the young…except, perhaps, with his own children.
4. He was the first and (as yet) only professional actor to serve as president but even his strongest political opponents agreed that he was a thoroughly authentic person.
5. His communication skills included an ability to establish a rapport, an intimacy with his audience and yet there was always a psychic distance from everyone except his second wife, Nancy.
Strock inserts hundreds of quotations throughout his narrative of those who knew him best. For example:
According to Colin Powell after his first meeting with President Reagan, “What stayed with me was the paradox of warmth and detachment Reagan seemed to generate simultaneously, as if there could be such a thing as impersonal intimacy.” Martin Anderson said Reagan was “warmly ruthless.” According to Strock, Reagan seldom gave direct orders. This approach empowered others “to act on behalf of the broader vision.” Donald Reagan called this “Guesswork Presidency.”
According to Donald Reagan (no relation), “To this day [after two months as Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury] I have never had so much as a minute alone with Ronald Reagan! Never has he, or anyone else, say down in private to explain to me what is expected of me, what goals he would like to see me to accomplish, what results he wants.”
Whether or not you think Ronald Reagan was a great leader, you will find a wealth of information in this book that helps to explain what a great leader is…and isn’t, what a great leader does…and doesn’t do. I also highly recommend James Strock’s previously published book, Serve to Lead. If you share my high regard for Theodore Roosevelt, you will also enjoy another Strock book, Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership.