USC Price School of Public Policy

Executive Leadership Panel

“Executive Leadership from the Inside Out: Presidential Perspectives on Reagan” Panel

By Matthew Kredell

Executive Leadership Panel From left: Ralph Bledsoe, Michael Genovese, Peter Hannaford, and James Pfiffner Watch video »
Photo by Tom Queally

The Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium kicked off Feb. 1 at USC with an examination of executive leadership and the ways Reagan approached difficult leadership challenges in his eight years as the United States’ 40th president.

The first of four panels presented by the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development featured two former Reagan advisers – Ralph Bledsoe and Peter Hannaford – who relayed their personal stories of dealing with the man to USC students, faculty and community members gathered at USC’s Davidson Conference Center.

“The first-hand account that Ralph Bledsoe was able to bring to some of Reagan’s decisions and how they came about was pretty fascinating,” said Larissa Martinez, a second-year MPA student. “I really enjoyed the panel.”

Bledsoe, who served as special assistant to President Reagan and the first director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and Hannaford, a senior communications adviser to Reagan from his time as governor of California through his election as president, were joined on the panel by two presidential scholars. The professors were James Pfiffner, the director of the doctoral program in public policy at Georgetown University, and Michael Genovese, director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University. The panel was moderated by Rich Callahan, director of USC SPPD’s state capital and leadership programs.

Pfiffner opened the panel by reading his academic paper (“Paradox of President Reagan’s Leadership”) that focused on the paradoxes of Reagan’s presidency and Reagan’s detached management style.

Pfiffner asserted that Reagan is remembered as a tax cutter, but he signed some of the largest tax increases in U.S. history. He is remembered as standing firm against terrorism, yet he bargained with Iran to trade arms for hostages. He lobbied for smaller government, yet annual federal spending increased from 590.9 billion in 1980 to 1.4 trillion by 1989. He presented the U.S. as a strong and unyielding opponent of Communism, but he sought to find common ground with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the hands of a lesser politician, such deviations from one’s proposed agenda would label him indecisive. Reagan managed to maintain his overall ideals while making his policy shifts appear sensible.

“His broad vision and clear direction made his political ideals appealing,” Pffifner said. “But what made his policy victories possible was his willingness, when faced with political reality, to make pragmatic compromises without seeming to abandon his ideals.”

Reagan was a big-picture leader. He set a strategic direction and left it to his aides to formulate and carry out policy. Hannaford explained that Reagan devised a simple but effective management method that had three elements: 1) To find the job to be done, 2) Pick the right person to do it, 3) Let him or her do the job.

“Other than stating his objectives, he rarely instructed the people he appointed on how to go about the work they were supposed to do,” Hannaford said. “He was self-confident and he was showing his appointees that he had confidence in them. The result is nearly all of them worked very hard to justify what they believed were his expectations and were very loyal to him.”

This philosophy worked well with the right people in charge, but the Iran-Contra Affair demonstrated the downside of Reagan’s passive leadership style. Bledsoe stressed the importance of Chief of Staff James Baker, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver and Counselor to the President for Policy Ed Meese during Reagan’s first term, and stated his belief that if that team had remained in the White House for the second term, Iran-Contra would not have occurred.

“I found most interesting the idea of President Reagan as a paradox because there are definitely political circles where his legacy is embraced as being the same as the movement he led,” said Micah Scheindlin, a junior majoring in American Studies. “The panelists said it really was not that simple, that the president had far more nuance than some in the conservative movement would like to attribute to him.”