Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan


Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald ReaganSimilarities of Two Iconic Leaders

Alexander Englander The College of Saint Rose

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan



Introduction Every four years, Americans go to the polls to elect a new leader for the nation. Every

four years, the pundits and prognosticators sit back and analyze the election of the new President and what it says about America. In 2008, with the landslide election of Senator Barack Obama, it was declared, America wanted change. Obama represented the change America was anxious for. Commentators tried to draw a parallel between the election of Barack Obama and that of two other larger-than-life Presidents; Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Wilson Reagan. Both of these men were elected in the worst economic crises of that generation. Roosevelt was elected in the worst economic crisis the nation had ever seen. These two men, who represent two very different political ideologies, have now been cast as titans of American electoral politics. Today, a president cannot be elected without the compulsory comparison: Will this President be a Reagan or a Roosevelt? The answer is obvious: No. This nation will never see another Roosevelt or Reagan. These two men offered the nation hope during times when there was little to be had. They asked the nation to work together to find common ground to solve the insolvable. Both of these men possessed unique characteristics which allowed them to tap into the soul of the country and brought out the best in what America has to offer. It is clear, not just from history books, but from those who lived through those times; Roosevelt and Reagan offered the nation something more tangible than just optimism. Can these two Presidents be described as true transformational leaders? How did their style of leadership work within the confines of the conditions they were elected to? In order to answer those questions, it is important to examine different styles of leadership and how these two men answered the call of the nation. Only then can an answer be determined as to what types of leaders these titans of America were.

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan II. Styles of Leadership In order to begin a comparison of leadership style between Roosevelt and Reagan, it is important to understand and examine the qualities both men possessed, along with how


leadership is viewed by others. Two people could be standing next to one another, both have the same qualities, yet only one may ever be remembered for his or her leadership abilities. Why are these two men now in the pantheon of great American leaders? A leader, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is: “a person who has commanding authority or influence” (2011). In his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter G. Northouse looks at various forms of leadership; beginning with trait approach all the way through psychodynamic approach. Northouse defines leadership as the following: “(a) Leadership is a process; (b) leadership involves influence, (c) leadership occurs in groups and (d) leadership involves common goals” (2011, p. 3). David Gergen, a former advisor to four Presidents and analyst for CNN, wrote in article for Time, in which he asks “Does Leadership Matter?” He points to several cases in history where leadership has made a huge difference in the outcome of historical events. “If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had died (prior to World War Two)” what would our civilization look like now (2005)? Yet, it is not just any leader who is able to make an indelible mark on history, it is an exceptional leader: One who does not waiver when making the hardest decisions of any human being; a person who puts the needs of his people before the needs of himself. What makes an exceptional leader? In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, historian David McCullough says one of the differences between an average leader and an exceptional leader is “spotting talent” (Fryer, 2008, p. 46). Not just any talent, but exceptional

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan talent. Where would Roosevelt be without Harry Hopkins or General Eisenhower? Where would Reagan be without Ken Duberstein or George Schultz? McCullough also says in his interview that the sign of good leadership is how the leader handles failure (2008, p. 46). When parts of his “New Deal” were defeated by Congress, President Roosevelt kept going. Had President Reagan allowed the Challenger disaster to paralyze space exploration, there would be no International Space Station. Therefore, McCullough is correct; how a leader handles defeat


and setback shows as much about the person as his or her victories. Those victories and setbacks also have to do with the conditions a leader is elected into. Whatever the conditions are will greatly shape what kind of leader he or she becomes, or already is. Northouse calls this situational leadership. “The premise of the theory is that different situations demand different kinds of leadership” (2011, p. 89). Both Roosevelt and Reagan found themselves President at very unique times in American history. Roosevelt entered office at the height of The Great Depression. Reagan entered office during the worst recession since the depression and at the height of The Cold War. Aside from these conditions aiding their electoral win, these situations were to play major roles in how Roosevelt and Reagan led the nation. Sydney A. Pearson wrote in his article Presidential Leadership that leadership is; “…rooted in the personal qualities of the president and in the nature of the particular crisis confronted either successfully or unsuccessfully” (2006, p. 57). This corresponds directly to what Northouse says, not only about situational leadership, but also the style approach and skills approach to leadership (2011). Both the style and skills approach look at the leader and his or her qualities and traits as a person and what he or she brings to the role of leader.

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan In the skills approach to leadership, Northouse says, “…that knowledge and abilities are


needed for effective leadership” (2011, p. 39). This theory of leadership looks at what the leader knows and how he or she uses their skills to implement that knowledge, which in turn would make him an effective leader. However, being President of the United States requires the leader to be flexible enough to transition to different types of leadership theories. Another theory which both Reagan and Roosevelt used was the style approach theory which; “focuses exclusively on what leaders do and how they act” (2011, p. 69). It is important for a president to present himself in a certain way and show a sense of decorum which will reflect well, not only on him, but the office which he holds and the nation he leads. These various styles of leadership, which help to differentiate between good leaders, bad leaders and exceptional leaders; when added together help to create what many Presidents’ aspire, but only few succeed: Transformational leadership. Northouse states that transformational leadership is, “a process that changes and transforms people. It is concerned with emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long-term goals” (2011, p. 171). In their article “Ethics, Character and Authentic Transformational Leadership Behavior”, authors Bernard Bass and Paul Steidlmeier break transformational leadership down even more than Northouse, stating that a transformational leader should have these four qualities: “Charisma or idealized influence (attributed or behavioral), inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration)” (1999). On the surface, it would appear as though Roosevelt and Reagan had many of the qualities listed. Using these styles of leadership allows for a better comparison of these two men and their tenure as President.


Roosevelt, Reagan and Leadership

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan When a child is asked, “Who do you want to be when you are all grown-up?” Very seldom does one here: “I want to be Jimmy Carter.” Or, “I want to be just like Richard Nixon.” These two men are among the many men who have held the Office of the President and made


less than a favorable impression upon the citizens of this nation while they served. This is not to say Nixon and Carter are not good men, but their tenure as President was not as successful as many had hoped. On January 20, 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office for a historic and unprecedented fourth term as President. No other President has or ever will serve in the office as long as Roosevelt did. According to the website, 270 to Win, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the Presidency all four times with no less than 400 electoral votes in each election (2011). President Reagan was himself elected to his two terms in Electoral College landslides, winning no less than 450 electoral votes in each election (2011). Not only did these two Presidents come into office with landslide wins, they had a mandate from the electorate which granted them additional political capital. Although these two men held differing views on government and how a President and the Congress should lead the nation, their styles of leadership were very similar. Reagan is often called “The Great Communicator.” However, he took this cue from Roosevelt, who spoke to the nation via radio on semi-regular “fireside chats.” Roosevelt was the first president to use electronic mass communication devices to connect to the people. “Radio provided him with a direct link to his voting public and the next generation of voters” (Yu, 2005, p. 90). This was the first time citizens of the nation could hear their leader live. It gave them comfort to know he cared about them enough to speak to them “personally” regarding matters of the state: “They would gather on a night in front of the radio in the living room, and listen to the comforting words of their president, encouraging them, and

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan telling them that he knew how they felt because he was one of them”(2005, p. 90).


President Reagan, taking a page from Roosevelt, would speak to the American people every Saturday at noon. These two men, knowing their country was in crises, spoke to the people as though they were in the same room, giving advice and assurances the country was on the right track. As Lumeng notes in her article: “FDR made sure to boost Americans' energy at the end of every fireside chat, each full of confidence and strength, his voice filled with the sagacity of a father” (2005, p. 90). Reagan used the same techniques in his Saturday afternoon broadcasts and the speeches he delivered throughout his presidency. It was Reagan’s charm and eloquence which comforted people during hard times, much like Roosevelt. In addition, both men had an appreciation for history and the place a President stands with his predecessors: “With a knowledge of history comes the understanding that one day you, too, will be judged by later generations” (Fryer, 2008, p. 48). As mentioned earlier, Reagan and Roosevelt entered office and served as President during two of the most complex crises in American history, to that date. These crises, which they shepherded the country through, could have spelled certain failure for other contemporary leaders; yet, for Roosevelt and Reagan the crises enabled these men to become more than just a President. In his paper, "Presidential Leadership”, George Goethals takes a closer look at different leadership styles and which presidents fit-in where. What Goethal’s concludes is Reagan and Roosevelt both changed the landscape of the country and the office which they served in a very transformational way:

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan “In 1980, Ronald Reagan offered the nation just that (reassurance). The United


States, Reagan said, had the capacity to meet the world’s challenges and solve the nation’s problems. “Why shouldn’t we believe that?” Reagan concluded his inaugural address, “After all, we are Americans” (Goethals, 2005). He also suggests that Roosevelt did the same thing. In his first inaugural address President Roosevelt told American’s: “… first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (2001). What Roosevelt and Reagan did in their inaugural speeches is to challenge the American populace to rise above the problems and work together to find solutions. Goethal’s goes on to explain how Reagan: “revitalized a story of American goodness and greatness that had come unraveled during the administrations of his four immediate predecessors, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter” (2005, p. 555). That revitalization is what Roosevelt did with regards to Hoover’s tenure as President. Geothal’s points out that Reagan and Roosevelt appeared to have done so well due to the unpopularity of their predecessors. Ironically, these two leaders bookend one another and the story of World War Two and its aftermath: Reagan won office by offering a vision of America opposite of FDR’s (2005, p. 560). By the time Reagan took office, the policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal had run their course and American’s were ready for a new direction. Roosevelt was able to do the same thing in comparison to Hoover’s policies. By building on the growing negativity and pessimism in their respective elections, Roosevelt and Reagan were able to offer a brighter future for the country. Their messages were of hope and optimism. They were rallying the populace around what America stood for and how

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan


to reclaim the pride one felt in the country. As Goethal’s states in his article: “Transformational leadership “occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality (p. 550). That is exactly what Roosevelt and Reagan did during their tenure as President of the United States.


Conclusion Since its founding, the United States has had 44 Presidents. Each man who has been

elected to the job has brought with him a style and substance unique to himself. Some of these men were able to rise to the occasion and become the leader the people had hoped. Others came up short and therefore left the American people feeling let down. It is hard to say what kind of leader a man or woman will be until he or she is put into that position. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are two leaders who understood just how much the people of this nation needed them. Despite their differing views on government and how it should be run, both of these men shared common styles in their leadership. Both men offered the nation hope and an optimism which was lacking in their predecessors. Both men used electronic mass media in new ways to reach out and comfort, heal, and show a steady hand in crises. This probably did more to heal the nation’s psyche than anything else they could have done in their tenures. Both of these men were charismatic and comforting. They were able to rally the people behind their causes, which in turn aided their legislative agendas. They also had an aura surrounding them drew people the skeptics toward their causes. All of these characteristics are what go into making a transformational leader. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronal Wilson Reagan my go down in history as two of the greatest leaders

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan this nation has ever had. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their policies, they have earned the respect of most historians and the people of this nation. A man or woman can have great


ideas, yet if he or she is not able to convey those ideas to the masses, then it is not worth having. Roosevelt and Reagan were able to use the skills and the situations they were elected into to bring the nation to a better place. This is why both of these men should be considered transformational leaders.

Titans of Leadership: FDR and Ronald Reagan References


270 to Win. (2011). 270 to Win. Retrieved November 20, 2011, from 270 to Win: http://www.270towin.com/ Bass, B. M., & Steidlmeier, P. (1999). Ethics, Character and Authentic Transformational Leadership Behavior. The Leadership Quarterly , 181-217. Fryer, B. (2008, March). Timeless Leadership. Harvard Business Review , pp. 45-49. Gergen, D. (2005, 10 31). Does Leadership Matter. US News and World Report , p. 91. Goethals, G. A. (2005). Presidential Leadership. Annual Review of Psychology , 545-570. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2011). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 11 13, 2011, from Merriam-Webster.com: http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/leader?show=0&t=1321228571 Northouse, P. G. (2011). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage. Pearson, S. A. (2006). Presidential Leadership. Society , 56-67. Romano, A. (2011, 10 10). Wanted: A New Massiah. Newsweek , pp. 8-10. Roosevelt, F. D. (2001). Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Retrieved November 20, 2011, from Bartleby.com: Great Books Online: http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres49.html Scherer, M., Duffy, M., Newton-Small, J., Steinmetz, K., & Baah, M. (2011, 02 07). The Role Model. Time , pp. 24-29. Yu, L. (. (2005). The Great Communicator: How FDR's Radio Speeches Shaped American History. History Teacher , 89-106.

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