One of my favorite things about visiting presidential libraries is the fun little nuggets of history that teach profound lessons about leadership and the habits of leaders.
In 2016, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. I was excited to be there. It was the first presidential library I had visited since going to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston several years beforehand.
My wife and I were dating at the time and we made a several-hour long visit to the library, soaking up the history of the Reagan presidency, the 1980s in the United States, and of course touring Reagan’s Air Force One airplane and Marine One helicopter, which live on permanent exhibit in an all glass hanger in the museum.
While walking through his Air Force One and Marine One were an experience, one exhibit in particular caught my eye. Here is my picture of it:
The librarians at the Reagan library call this album of index cards the Reagan, “Rosetta Stone”. Although President Reagan was known as, “The Great Communicator,” it turns out that this was not an entirely natural gift. President Reagan’s jobs after acting and before politics required him to make public speeches often. He wrote copious notes about which jokes, anecdotes, and quotes best made his points to an audience. Each note was carefully inscribed on notecard, categorized, and then filed to be pulled at exactly the appropriate time.
Reagan’s speechwriters were often dumbfounded when President Reagan himself would substitute one of their drafted stories in a prepared speech for the perfect anecdote, rehearsed and revised over years of public speaking. This album was so important to President Reagan that the librarians did not find it until 2010, 6 years after his death in a box labeled “RR’s Desk.” The Reagan Library published these notes, with an interesting forward explaining the document, as a book called The Notes.
For leaders, communication is an imperative. Explaining the mission, vision, and values of an organization, embedding its strategy, and influencing are all rooted in person-to-person communication. President Reagan seemed to have a deep understanding of this and honed this vital skill over many years.
The consistency and discipline it required to develop the album must have been a challenge in its own right. At a time where the only “clouds” were the fluffy white things in the sky, maintaining the album in one place must have been a difficult task.
President Reagan could have relied simply on his experience as an actor and his natural gift of oratory and left it at that. From the numerous clips I’ve seen and heard of his speeches, he had unique talent in this respect. However, perhaps without the sweat equity and organization of The Notes, Reagan would have only been, “The Good Communicator.”
The lesson of The Notes and the “Rosetta Stone” is that to be great, leaders need to develop systematic habits to hone their craft as leaders, communicators, strategists, or coaches. Whether that system is as simple as note cards, or as complex as a coded database, all depends on how it works for the individual leader. Well-designed systematic habits can amplify strengths and round out weaknesses. It’s important for leaders to develop these over time to truly be great.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Systems can be complex or simple. A good systematic habit helps to amplify a leader’s strengths and round out their weaknesses. The Notes provide a neat example of a system one U.S. President used to amplify his gift and strength.
The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is available for purchase on Amazon for $26.99 (does not include Prime discount)