What I Learned From the Gipper

Dec. 21, 2004
Our nation's former CEO was an admirable leader.

Years ago, I watched a roast of Dean Martin on television. The participants were a "who's who" of comedy. They included Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Howard Cosell, Don Rickles, Nipsey Russell, Flip Wilson, and Bob Hope. But it was Ronald Reagan, governor of California at the time, who stole the show. The year was 1975, prior to Reagan's decision to enter the Republican presidential primary. Reagan displayed qualities of leadership I didn't know he possessed, qualities every CEO should develop. Now mind you, my recollections of this 20-year-old event are a bit fuzzy, so please excuse me if I use author's license to make my point. When Reagan took his turn at the podium, he explained that while he understood this was a Dean Martin party, he was going to roast Bob Hope instead (daring). Why? Because he knew Bob Hope better than he knew Dean Martin (a refreshing admission). Reagan said he was delighted to be invited to the affair (diplomacy). But he admitted that "delighted" was an exaggeration. He was actually miffed because he was preoccupied with important affairs of state: Should he hire Ryder, or rent a U-Haul to move Nancy back to the ranch? Reagan said he hoped the taxpayers in the audience (shareholder interest) understood he had not made a special trip to Hollywood just to roast Bob Hope. That would be a frivolous use of taxpayers' money (fiscal responsibility). He came to Hollywood for a far more important reason: a guest shot on Hollywood Squares. As a former actor and successful politician (versatility), Reagan suggested that Hope might follow his example (elder statesmanship) and do better in politics than in show biz. In Reagan's opinion, Bob Hope had an unforgettable face. He had entertained over 10 million troops; had been seen by more than 100 million television viewers; and when you added the 27 people who had seen Bob's movies, he had a sizable constituency (logic). "Of course," said Reagan, "I'd be the last person to criticize anyone's movie career [empathy]. I've had a few disasters myself [candor]. I don't criticize governors, either" (prudence). Reagan observed that Bob Hope was a man of remarkable accomplishment (complimentary). He had performed for 12 presidents and entertained four. Only a .333 batting average. But good enough to make him the leading hitter on the Cleveland Indian baseball team of which Hope was a minority owner. "Bob Hope," Reagan concluded, "has received numerous tributes during his career. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that today the state legislature passed a bill naming him California's foremost citizen. Of course, I vetoed it" (humor). In those few minutes of frivolity, Reagan showed a remarkable number of leadership characteristics all chief executives would do well to copy. This Ronald Reagan story proves the wisdom of being who you are. Reagan's particular brand of leadership was vintage Reagan. Not Washington's, Lincoln's, Roosevelt's, or Truman's. Being Reagan was good enough. Chief executives must be leaders. But leadership is not inherited. Nor is it manufactured or cloned. It's a quality one learns from knowledge and experience. As the boss, chief executives get the acceptance and respect they deserve in direct relation to how they perform. A chief executive who tries to be someone else will find that his company will inevitably replace him with someone else. Because trying to be someone else shows up as being phony. Politicians might get away with being phony. Chief executives cannot. In every organization people know who is a leader and who isn't, who has status and who doesn't. An organizational chart rarely shows who the true leaders are. Power, authority, and status must be earned, not granted. It must be earned over and over as conditions, people, and technologies change. Trappings and titles have little to do with lasting judgments of true leadership. The pursuit of status symbols ranks with the common cold as one of man's most persistent maladies. In place of bed rest, aspirin, and fruit juice, I suggest a strong dose of Ronald Reagan humor. People who can laugh at themselves rarely develop consumptive self-adoration. People who can laugh at themselves make other people laugh, too. Chief executives who are admired are the ones perceived to be able, dedicated, fair, and helpful to others. It may make you feel good to have your name on the door. But it's far more important for your employees, shareholders and customers to feel good to see your name on the door.

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