Case Study in Leadership

I was honored to hear that all the Republican governors, some 30 of the 50 states, will be given copies of Reagan at Reykjavik, since the book is a fine case study in leadership.

None of the Governors face a world as dangerous as that the ex-Governor-become-President, Ronald Reagan, faced in October 1986. It was a mighty chilly point in the Cold War when he sat down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on a desolate spot in a allegedly-haunted house. But all Governors will face their own particular "leadership moments" when tested to the max -- moments which will come to define their individual legacy.

These Governors can learn from Ronald Reagan how to be flexible -- he was an uber-compromiser on legislation. He was willing to get part of his proposals through Congress rather than -- as he liked to say -- driving off the cliff with the flags flying. He sought to sit with opponents and hash things out.

As was clear at the outset of that eventful Iceland weekend, he was willing to sit down with the Russians. But as was clear at its conclusion, he was willing to stand up to them, too.

Perhaps most surprising, looking back 25+ years, was how Reagan had an approach which was coherent, and headed doggedly towards that desired outcome.

Granted, Ronald Reagan was no grand strategic theorist. But somehow the key elements of his approach -- a big military buildup, a campaign to delegitimize the Soviet Union, and especially the creation of SDI ("Star Wars") -- fit together to form a coherent strategic approach.

And somehow that approach fit his overarching goal of ending the Cold War, with our winning and their losing.

During my research, I was startled to find out from in Reagan's California circle, Tom Reed, of a conversation he records in his memoirs, At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War, which happened aboard the flight to Detroit where Reagan would accept the 1980 Republican presidential nomination.

Longtime political advisor Stuart Spencer asked, "Why are you doing this, Ron? Why do you want to be president?"

Without a minute's hesitation, according to Reed's account, Reagan blurted out, "To end the Cold War." And beginning in the 1970s if not earlier, Reagan envisioned how that would happen: "We win, they lose."

As President, he lost no time in trying to make that happen. At his very first White House press conference, he asserted that "détente's been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims," foremost "the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state." That explains why "the only morality they recognize is . . . [to] reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that" world domination.

That type of foresight -- that the Cold War would end, when nearly every expert and most everyone else considered it part of the geostrategic landscape, for as far as the eye could see -- is rare, as is the consistency with which Reagan pursued his vision.

Though not in substance, today's Governors -- and others wishing to improve their leadership skills -- can try to emulate Reagan in his approach of clearly and simply determining a goal, deciding what steps might conceivably achieve it, and then setting out steadily and relentlessly to go about getting there.