On Tuesday, November 6th, those of us in the United States get to participate in the great American experiment of democratic self-government when we go to the polls to cast our ballot in the presidential election. One of the key roles of the President of the United States, and for any leader in general, is to inspire trust in his or her followers. Few have done it better than Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator.”
The first time I was old enough to vote in a presidential election was in 1984 when Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in a landslide, earning 525 of the 538 electoral votes, the highest total in history. Reagan communicated in such a way that allowed most Americans to trust and follow him and to believe in the direction he wanted to take the country. Far from being an exhaustive treatise on the Reagan presidency, here’s four ways that Reagan built trust through his communications. Leaders in any organization at any level can benefit from applying these principles:
He had clear values – Whether you agreed with him or not, Reagan had very clear values that drove his actions. His view on the supremacy of individual freedom and the limited role of government was clearly articulated when he said, “I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.” Trusted leaders have a keen sense of their own personal values and are not hesitant to communicate them to their people and make decisions in alignment with those values.
He helped people believe in themselves – Reagan’s belief in the capabilities of individual Americans inspired a sense of confidence in people. When he used phrases such as “It’s morning again in America” or “America is back and standing tall,” he communicated a sense of belief in Americans that had been lacking in prior years. Leaders build trust with their people when they express their belief and confidence in them. Don’t ever let an opportunity go by to build someone up.
He had an authentic sense of humor – One of Reagan’s most endearing qualities was his sense of humor. He, along with other successful leaders, knew how to take his work seriously but himself lightly. Reagan frequently took heat for being one of America’s oldest presidents yet he didn’t become bitter about the criticism. He said “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.” Leaders will always be successful when they focus on being a first-rate version of themselves rather than a second-rate version of someone else.
He had a clear vision – Reagan frequently talked about America becoming the “shining city on a hill,” a vision of American exceptionalism, a vision of America reaching its full potential in all aspects of its existence and being an example for the world to model. In his farewell address in January 1989, Reagan said. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still…”
Regan’s vision for America captured the hearts and minds of its citizens and tapped into an innate need that every one of us has; the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to clearly articulate the vision of his or her team. Why does your team exist? What is your mission? What are you trying to accomplish? Answer those questions and clearly communicate them to your team and you’ll take a big step toward creating a trusted and loyal followership.
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