The Ronald Reagan Approach

Not necessarily my political hero, but one of the most popular leaders of the twentieth century with a great impact. Why? What’s the Ronald Reagan approach and what can leaders of today learn from him?

Ronald Reagan was an actor and concerned with creating a role, an impact. With creating an audience and steering that audience’s understanding of what is right and wrong and of what is real. Let’s not get tied up in the content and detail of WHAT he was preaching and representing, but with HOW he did it.

I’ve just come back from an interesting conference on facilitation, leadership and participation (I wish there were shorter, slightly less pretentious words for this concept of involving people who matter in solving questions that matter and creating new realities that work better). The issue we were dealing with, thanks to Dr. Raban Daniel Fuhrmann who coined the word “Profizität” (a rather messy mix of authenticity and professionalism) and posed the question, was “how much of me should I give light to in order to professionally lead a group to cooperation?” I was inspired by our conversations and some of the challenging inputs and, before we went to lunch on day 2, a small group of us summed up our thinking on this matter with the “Ronald Reagan Approach” to facilitation and leadership. If we agree with Dr. Eike Messow from the Jacobs University in Bremen, that a successful facilitator and leader aims to

  1. reach an objective, which will improve the reality of a team/organisation,
  2. build up a trusting environment for participation and evolution and
  3. instill in the team a sense of responsibility for achieving their goals

then we might want to think about how Ronald Reagan did this.

Firstly, we have to rid ourselves of the idea that all leaders and facilitators are necessarily authentic. Who’s to decide who’s authentic or not? And why is it important whether a leader/facilitator is authentic? My example: it might be very authentic for a facilitator who’s grown up in protestant church group dynamics to ask a group of bankers to introduce themselves to each other by throwing a ball of wool from one to the other. Or for George W. Bush to be the cowboy (where’s the Marlboro?) whilst hosting international negotiations in Texas. All authentic stuff, but excruciatingly embarrassing, alienating and not at all conducive to dialogue and trust.

I think we can all accept that Ronald Reagan wasn’t necessarily authentic. I think most of us are pretty glad we have no idea of what really went on in his mind! He was an actor. And we, as his audience, as those who followed his lead (and most of the western world did, even with grit teeth, follow his lead), were led by his impact, by the way we perceived him to be. Whether a leader/facilitator is authentic, professional, “nice” or good depends on whether he’s perceived to be so. We, as an audience, want to believe we can see the man/woman behind the leader or facilitator. Whether we really can make out the genuine person below the surface of the iceberg, really have an inkling of the values, norms, intuition and emotions at the core, is irrelevant. We want to believe we’ve sussed him out. That we are able to judge. Reagan was an actor. Acting is art. Art demands our willing suspension of disbelief. Why do we want to suspend our disbelief? Why do we want to believe we know and understand the man/woman behind the role? Because we hunger for security. In “knowing” what makes a leader tick, we feel safe in their hands. In “knowing” what’s really driving a facilitator, we feel safe as a group.

(Again, please don’t think I’m the big Reagan fan. Sure, I grew up in the UK of Maggie T and am, most certainly, a “Thatcher-Baby”, but I shudder at the Star Wars plans of big Ron. I am repulsed by the neo-liberal attitude to society’s responsibility for itself. Sorry, had to throw that in.)

So let’s have a look at how Ronald Reagan used his power of impact (as an actor) to deliver messages and at what those messages were. I’m convinced that we should deliver the same messages when leading groups:

  1. I’m listening.
  2. I’ve understood you.
  3. I’m interested (really burning to learn) in what you think and what you want.
  4. I am in charge
  5. I have everything under control (process, structures, culture, individuals)
  6. I have a suggestion I really believe in, but am willing to adapt to suit you too
  7. I am a human being, with values, strengths and weaknesses, experience (good and bad) and love
  8. I am fair and will uphold what’s important for you and protect you and defend your process
  9. I am fascinating (if only you knew all…), creative, unique and artistic
  10. When utilising the wisdom of the group, I’ll subordinate my own position and opinions

Whether this is true or not; whether Ronald Reagan really thought this or not, is irrelevant for our relationship with him as leader. Whether Nancy did, is, as his wife, another matter… What matters for our relationship with him is whether we “buy” it, when he says:

“I know in my heart that man is good.
That what is right will always eventually triumph.
And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.”

I don’t know Reagan’s heart. But I have the choice to decide. It’s the same story with any group I’m facilitating. Do they “buy” my words and actions? Do they believe that I mean it when I deliver the 10 messages above? If they do, we’re on to something and can achieve great results. If they don’t they’ll feel insecure, unmotivated and rebellious towards the process.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong in really meaning what you say. It would be wonderful if Reagan really did believe in his heart that man is good. Or if a facilitator really does believe in his heart that the group before him is capable of change when he tells them he does. We’ll never know as participants. We just need to believe we do.

It’s not about authenticity, but about professionalism. We’re playing a role and need to use our impact to inspire, motivate and empower people to change the world. That means we have to adapt the way we choose to appear in order to be “relatable to”. The 10 messages remain, but there’ll be different ways of telling them, depending on the group.

An afterthought. It’s not enough to be a good actor as a facilitator. Our deeds must follow our words. And our actions too. If our mimicry/stance tells a different story, or if we neglect to follow-up after a meeting, the group will be lost and our professionalism dead.


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