Reagan's Former Colleague Imparts Leadership Lessons
By Franklin L. Lavin

The Managers Journal
June 9, 2004
The Wall Street Journal Online

Like all assessments of public figures, Ronald Reagan's will be colored by the political biases of those who evaluate him. To many of his detractors, his politics were reactionary and he was a mere front man. I saw a different man, one with his share of human failings, but one who had a vision of where he wanted to take America and who had a set of leadership skills that allowed him, in large part, to achieve his goals.

In my view, regardless of the nature of one's politics, there is much to admire in Reagan's view of leadership. Having served in both Reagan administrations, here are a few of the lessons I took with me:

Reagan was in Alabama once and visited a special school for handicapped kids. He offered a few minutes of remarks and took questions from the kids. It was a terrific -- dare I say Reaganesque -- moment, because simply by spending time with these kids he was endowing their experience with a bit more worth.

Then came a moment of terror. One of the kids had a severe speech impediment. He asked his question, and no one in the room could understand it. The president asked him if he could repeat it and again no one could understand what was said. The staff froze. The teachers froze. What was to have been an upbeat day was turning into a disaster. Instead of allowing these wonderful kids to forget about their handicap, this kid was going to be reminded of it.

Reagan to the rescue. "I'm sorry," he said with a smile, "but you know I've got this hearing aid in my ear. Every once in a while the darn thing just conks out on me. And it's just gone dead. Sorry to put you through this again, but I'm going to ask one of my staff people to go over to you so you can tell him directly what your question is. Then he can pass the question back to me." Rather than make the kid feel small, Reagan brought his own handicap to the forefront.

Like many political leaders, Reagan had many gifts other than leadership. He had a graciousness about him and a guileless belief in human nature. Even in memory, his work will continue to enrage his political adversaries and please his supporters. But to me, he was first and foremost my day-to-day boss. Of the many lucky aspects of my life, perhaps my greatest professional fortune was when Ronald Reagan asked me to be part of his cause.

-- Mr. Lavin, the U.S. ambassador to Singapore, served on President Reagan's White House and National Security Council staff.

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