Corner Office-The Great Communicator

Corner Office-The Great Communicator

Lessons in détente for business.

Regardless of political convictions, I think we can all agree that President Ronald Reagan was indeed the “The Great Communicator,” who, during a difficult time in our country’s history, restored our national self-confidence. Some believe that he was a gifted public speaker only because he was a former actor, but it was much more than that.

Reagan was also a good listener and used candor, modesty, and his wit to relate to all types of people. Above all, he was skilled at using these tools to resolve conflict.

Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War was perhaps his most significant achievement. He reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev on a personal level in order to bypass the limitations on communication that are inherent in bureaucracies. I will remember forever the pictures of Reagan and Gorbachev at their meeting in Geneva in November 1985, walking outside in the fresh air, chatting like old friends.

Recently, our firm held its own annual summit. (Onamia, Minnesota, is not exactly Geneva, but it was still lovely.) We discussed specific work-related topics, reviewed case studies, and ended the meeting with a workshop on effective communication and teamwork.

Business issues have nowhere near the significance of the nuclear arms race, but Reagan’s effectiveness in communicating is a good example for all of us. It’s a fact that every organization has some amount of conflict, and that some conflict is healthy. But the way an organization communicates and resolves conflicts determines whether the conflict is useful. Unresolved conflict results in hot tempers getting hotter, departments becoming more isolated in their “silos,” and personal agendas looming larger. As a result, fewer deadlines are met, goals are missed, customers are not served, and profits get slimmer.

Get the picture? Not a pretty one, is it? Let’s see what “The Great Communicator” would have done in these situations. (All quotes are from Reagan’s An American Life: The Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1990).

“In the letter to Chernenko, I said I believed it would be advantageous for us to communicate directly and confidentially. I tried to use the old actor’s technique of empathy: to imagine the world as seen through another’s eyes and try to help my audience see it through my eyes.”

According to our off-site workshop facilitator, Louellen Essex, some of the reasons for poor communication are not gearing the message to the receiver, lack of clarity, producing defensiveness through judgmental words, and lack of active listening.

Or, in Reagan’s words, not being direct or showing empathy. Reagan believed intuitively that the Russians were afraid of the Americans, and broke down that fear by demonstrating that he understood them. In letters in advance of the Geneva summit, Reagan slowly gained Gorbachev’s trust by showing sympathy for the Russian people and the hardships that nuclear war would bring on both sides; he firmly believed that a winner could not emerge from a global nuclear war, and said so to the Russians.

Many of us have been involved with this eternal feud: Sales and marketing believe that strategy should go one way based on what customers want; R&D believes it should go the other way based on technology. Organizations that get these departments looking at things through each others’ eyes and collaborating know that the compromise strategy that emerges is likely to have greater value and success than what either department put forth on its own.


“We left Andrews Air Force Base aboard Air Force One shortly after eight o’clock in the morning on November 16, 1985. Just before takeoff, we got word that the Soviets had allowed several of their citizens who were married to Americans to join their spouses in the United States . . . I took the Soviet decision as a positive signal before the summit.”

In the Cold War era, nonverbal communication was often the only communication between the Americans and Soviets. Reagan believed that the Soviets’ diplomatic move was a positive sign before the summit, and the Soviets obviously had a reason for timing the release of those citizens as they did.

Likewise in business, nonverbal communication often speaks louder than what we actually say. Crossing your arms, looking the other way, or frowning, for example, are non-verbal no-nos. Everybody knows that, right?

So why are businesspeople still so rude in their nonverbal communications?: not concentrating in meetings; not waiting for the speaker to finish or evaluating the message before responding with nonverbal signals; firing off abrupt e-mails instead of picking up the phone or walking down the hall to talk to someone face to face; ignoring voice-mail messages. Think about those things and their detrimental effects next time you’re tempted to do them.


“As we shook hands for the first time, I had to admit—as Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada predicted I would—that there was something likable about Gorbachev. There was warmth in his face and his style, not the coldness bordering on hatred I’d seen in most senior Soviet officials I’d met until then.”

Reagan had done his homework before meeting Gorbachev, not only by studying American intelligence reports, but also by discussing the new Soviet leader with other world leaders. At the same time, Reagan followed his hunches about Gorbachev’s personality and tailored his message to appeal to Gorbachev’s motivations.

Personality differences can create harmony or conflict in business. Collaboration on a project can by stymied, for example, by not understanding the other person’s style. Some people make decisions based on precise facts and details, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Some need time to brainstorm and consider all possible angles. The leader eventually must force decisions and actions, of course, but leaders will get greater support for their decisions if there’s been opportunity for all types of personalities to engage in the process in the way that seems most effective to them.

“I gave the floor to Gorbachev first, and he went into a long pitch arguing that Americans had no reasons to mistrust the Soviets and that we should apply no preconditions to our discussions . . . . Gorbachev said he believed that American munitions makers were the principal obstacle to peace on the American side: They were our ruling class, he suggested, and they kept our people fired up against the Soviets simply because they wanted to sell more weapons . . . . Finally it was my turn, and I took Gorbachev through the long history of Soviet aggression, citing chapter and verse of the Soviet Union’s policy of expansionism from 1917 onward. I wanted to explain why the free world had good reason to put up its guard against the Soviet bloc.”

Although Reagan and Gorbachev were friendly on a personal basis, they didn’t hide their viewpoints. They were very clear with each other about where they stood on the issues, and didn’t shrink from criticizing each other’s countries. On the other hand, they found areas upon which they could agree that served as launching points for discussion.

This is equally important in business. Don’t let “Minnesota Nice” take over your organization, with everyone agreeing face to face, but talking about their differences behind closed doors. Get disagreements that are sparked by dif-ferences in perspective out in the open. Devise a process for resolving conflict and making trade-offs. As a leader, view conflict as a chance to coach people in good communication that leads to positive results. Model the right attitude by playing the play that’s ultimately called, whether or not you personally agree with it. Let the common ground of corporate goals be the guiding principle.


“After more than an hour, Gorbachev and I decided it was probably time for us to rejoin the others, so we began walking up the path to the main building. Midway in our walk, in the center of a parking lot, I stopped him and, because of a hunch that the time was right to do so, I invited Gorbachev to Washington for another summit. He not only accepted, but invited me to come to Moscow for a third summit.”

And that was the beginning of the end of the Cold War—extraordinary, world-changing results from two men simply talking. Let’s try that in our companies and see what performance-changing results we achieve.

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