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Take the High Road, Reagan Style

With the passing of former first lady Nancy Reagan this week, I had to wonder how she must have viewed the street brawling of the current Republican primary candidates and their extremely personal, often crude attacks.

Her husband, the late President Ronald Reagan, had been a strong advocate for what he called “the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Sadly, it seems almost quaint today.

In his autobiography An American Life Reagan said the phrase was coined by a state Republican Party chairman during Reagan’s first campaign, a successful run for Governor of California.

While electoral history shows that Reagan violated this principle on occasion, in general, he took the high road in his public rhetoric and relationships with other leaders.

By taking a positive approach, Reagan maintained his likability, building a coalition of Republican, Independents and what were called “Reagan Democrats.” Many people who disagreed with his policies, wouldn’t say a bad word about him because Reagan maintained such a positive, optimistic approach.

For leaders today, Reagan’s approach offers insights on how to respond when you are criticized inside or outside your own organization. It may be criticism of you, your team or a project you’ve handled. In any case, consider these ideas:

Don’t be defensive: Our first inclination when attacked is to defend ourselves and answer every charge that is made about us. This defensiveness makes us seem weak. It’s better to remain confident and simply dismiss the attacks.

During a 1980 debate, former President Jimmy Carter leveled a list of strong charges against Reagan. In a famous response that many believe sealed his victory, Reagan simply shook his head, a bit sadly, and said, “There you go again,” sweeping away the attacks.

Maintaining your cool can be tough in these situations. You can learn to control your responses, as I wrote in Don't Let People Push Your Buttons.

Don’t counter-attack:  When we counter attack, we take on the negativity of our critics, which lowers us to their level. When we throw mud, we get dirty ourselves. We saw that recently when a young Republican candidate tried to become an insult artist and damaged his own optimistic leadership brand.

As author James Strock writes in Reagan on Leadership“Reagan rarely displayed public anger in response to provocations…Instead, he remained invincibly genial. He understood that replying in kind to the personal attacks could only distract and detract [from what he was trying to accomplish].”

Use humor to soften the situation: Sometimes the easiest way to counter a charge is to use humor. I don’t mean sarcasm or passive-aggressive comments, but a light touch and a laugh can break the tension and let everyone take a breath and relax.

Reagan used this effectively during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, who had been Jimmy Carter’s vice president. Reagan, who was 73 at that time, had a poor first debate in which he seemed disoriented with some critics charging he was senile. Mondale was only 56 at the time.

In the second debate, Reagan was ready for the inevitable age question. He responded with a smile and said, “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

The audience roared with laughter and applause and even Mondale had to smile. The question of Reagan’s age was put to rest, and he proceeded to sharply win the debate.

Stay with your own message: You should have your own very clear message about who you are and what you stand for, what we today call your personal brand. It’s important to continue to stay on message to accomplish your own vision and goals.

As James Strock writes, “Criticism did not throw Reagan off course. He did not allow it to. He would respond to it, if at all, in the context of his own message. He could brush off even the most personal attacks because his pursuit of leadership was in the service of his vision.”

Remember relationships matter: By taking the low road, you’ll end up hurting a relationship. Think long-term. It’s entirely possible that the person criticizing you today, could be your ally, friend or mentor tomorrow, but not if you attack. It’s better to build a bridge for long-term relationships, than burn one for short-term gain.

Reagan became friends with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, and was able to produce unlikely results with a Democratic Congress. As Reagan wrote:

I called him and said, “Tip, I just read in the paper what you said about me yesterday. I thought we had a pretty fine relationship going…”

“Ol’ buddy,” Tip said, “that’s politics. After six o’clock we can be friends; but before six, it’s politics.”

…So, after a while, whenever I’d run into him, whatever time it was, I’d say, “Look Tip, I’m resetting my watch; it’s six o’clock.”

In the end, relationships are what matter most. If you feel yourself thinking about taking the low road, remember Reagan’s approach and reset your watch.

After all, it’s six o’clock somewhere.

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