What President Ronald Reagan Can Teach Us About Leadership Today

In August 1981, our new President Ronald Reagan signed sweeping reform of the federal tax code into law triggering the greatest economic expansion of the 2nd half of the 20th century. 20 million new jobs were created.  Inflation, unemployment, and interest rates were dramatically reduced.

Tax revenue paid by the wealthy and received by the government actually grew. His tax policy is so successful that Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden adopted it as their own. Never again would rates climb anywhere near pre-Reagan levels of 70% or higher.

Also in his first year, Reagan led a massive and badly needed rebuild of our armed forces. He boldly rejected the policy of every prior President towards the Soviet Union. He chose victory over the policies of detente, containment, or rollback. In 1981, he began to author the obituary of the Soviet Union a regime responsible for murdering tens of millions and enslaving hundreds of millions. He effectively applied all the tools of American power. By 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

What made his first 7 months in office remarkable was the opposition and obstacles he overcame. During this time, he was almost killed, spent 2 months in the hospital, faced a strongly Democratic House of Representatives whose leadership promised to stop his tax policy, and endured a constant barrage of negative attacks from the news media and political opponents who derided him as a dunce and a nut.

He won more than policy victories. He won the argument. He proved that popular elite opinions which dominated our policies for decades – taxes should be high, detente with the Soviets was best, and America was in inevitable decline and never again would be the world’s superpower – were wrong.

He also showed he could work with members of the other political party and enjoyed a good personal relationship with then Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill.  Leaders can have strong commitments to their vision and values and still successfully collaborate with others who may disagree. Reagan understood that an opponent of today’s bill could be a friend on tomorrow’s legislation.

He made clear his top priorities and stayed true to them until achieved.  He effectively articulated and built strong support for his vision for the country.   He assembled a team who could get the job done.  He maintained a spirit of hope, optimism, and determination.  Regardless of your politics, President Reagan still offers us lessons in leadership forty-one years after his historical first year in office.


From the Teacher: Leadership Lessons with Dr. Saviak is a weekly column with the esteemed Joseph C. Saviak, Ph.D., J.D., M.A., M.S., Management Consulting & Leadership Training.

Featured Image: U.S. President Ronald Reagan