The City on the Hill

August 15th

Working on leadership issues that are being generated every day by the changing market in which we now live, one of the clearest and most notable changes that can be seen everyday has been the growing visibility of leaders.  Future leaders will have to learn to manage this heightened, 360 degree inspection.  Above all will be the pressure to communicate what you believe in, often in the most personal terms.  The following post came from this discussion of the personal leadership statement.

In 1983, I was asked by my college friend, Jim Coyne, who had just left Congress and had joined Ronald Reagan’s White House staff, to come to work as his deputy in the office of Private Sector Initiatives. This was a new program that had the personal attention of President Ronald Reagan. My first task when I came to work was to organize and our budget suggested that that might mean dropping the person who had been there when we came, a White House staffer named Michael Castine.

But I thought that it made sense for me to go and talk to Michael first and to see what he knew. Ten minutes into the conversation I knew that my first decision in the Reagan White House was to bust our budget and find a way to get more funding. This was probably not the small government that President Reagan intended. But Michael had unique abilities to get things done in the White House. He started by getting Jim and me onto Air Force One.

Everyone who has ever worked in government knows that getting visibility for your program is half of the battle. And in the case of Private Sector Initiatives, getting Ronald Reagan’s attention wasn’t hard. He loved them. What I hadn’t expected was the education that I was going to get by watching Reagan up close.

Two days after I arrived, President Reagan flew to Western Pennsylvania to review a jobs training program and, far more visibly, to give a speech to the NAM-AFL-CIO meeting in Pittsburgh where the unemployment rate was 22%. Going to Pittsburgh at all in such a time was hardly what most political strategists would have suggested to the President. Governor Thornburgh, I would soon see, would have just as soon missed the honor as would Senators Specter and Heintz. But there they were, bundled into a job training site in March 1983, listening to President Ronald Reagan talk about the City on the Hill.

President Ronald Reagan had become a symbol of a failing economy by the Spring of 1983. He was so unpopular that his opponents were able to organize large protest rallies to greet him when he went out to give a speech. But before we would see the crowds surrounding the luncheon speech, the motorcade swept underneath a new office building and everyone, President, Secret Service, Politicians, Press, staff – everyone – crowded into a classroom where former steel workers were being trained as computer technicians.

Reagan gave a short talk. At the end of his brief remarks, the trainees were able to ask questions. One young man in jeans stood and asked,

“Mr. President, I appreciate the opportunity that I have been given here, don’t get me wrong. Some of my buddies from the plant were past 40 and were too old to be trained for computers. But President Reagan, I have a question for you. Now that I’m going to be retrained, is there going to be a computer industry in 10 years?”

In that moment I felt as though a hand had shaken me awake. I of course knew in principle that these were the consequences to the policy choices that had been made 10 years earlier during the energy crisis. Policy had said that if the steel industry couldn’t survive with a Clean Air Act and higher energy prices that this was OK, steel jobs could move abroad if that’s what the market decided. Here, the steel worker trainees in front of me were the result of those trade-offs.

Reagan’s answer was memorable. He bowed his head and paused. When he looked up he began talking about wanting to take a Russian leader up in a helicopter to tour an American city from the air. He wanted to show him the swimming pools and the boats in the driveways.

I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Later I would hear the speech a second time and then a third and I came to understand that he was talking about one of his core beliefs in the power of the exceptional American system to manufacture opportunity.

A look back from 1983 ten years from the 1973 energy crisis, reconsidering energy and environmental policy debate of the 70’s showed where the steelworker trainee’s question – “will there be a future?” – was coming from. To look forward then from that point and think about the question of whether there would be a computer industry in 1993, is the preamble to a remarkable story. The steelworker/computer technician was asking a reasonable question at the time. But its truly ironic in light of what would happen when the Internet moved to center stage. Silicon Valley had not been invented. Microsoft had only just been created. The Macintosh had not been presented to the world in the Superbowl. The Internet explosion would have been unimaginable at the time of the question.

Yet, Reagan in Pittsburgh was standing at a strategic inflection point for the American Economy. He could not have proven that his vision of the future would be correct nor could he have steered the course through executive action. His vision of opportunity was an effective way to address a fundamental turning points that are faced by every leader.

I have thought about that cold, rainy morning in Pittsburgh many times. Above all, I was astonished at Reagan’s vision and his optimism that even in a place where the economy seemed to be at its worst that the American system would work its miracle and create opportunity. I was to hear the City on the Hill speech many other times while I was at the White House because it was a core belief of the President’s. But for me personally, Reagan’s visit to the realities of market failure and recession also came at a pivotal time.

I would have found it impossible not to have not seen the Reagan White House through a dual lens. Everything that happened in the spring and summer was a sharp contrast with my experience in the same building exactly 10 years earlier as Richard Nixon’s presidency collapsed. In contrast, the spring of 1983 was when Ronald Reagan turned his presidency from failure to a generational scale success that is often given credit for changing the direction of the country.

In 1983, I could also see, more clearly than ever before in my life, the consequences of decisions.  Here in this steelworker trainee’s angst were the results of decisions that had been made a decade earlier. Just being in the White House had created an echo. This was my experience with the phenomenon of being brought to the acute realization of the consequences of the decisions that we all make whether we see at the time that we have been given a position of leadership or not.

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