The great advantage to prior presidencies is how the leadership at the time may be understood through hindsight, and placed in perspective with others occupying the same, singular roles. In “the moment,” it is difficult to comprehend the actual leadership style of a president such as Reagan, and this reality is compounded by how modern media presents limitless interpretations during the terms of office. As the following reveals, however, it is reasonable to define Reagan’s leadership as transformational in a charismatic sense, and primarily in the leader-member exchange model (LMX) by virtue of how the public shaped its own ideas of the leader it wanted Reagan to be.
Reagan’s Unique Leadership
Two distinct styles seem to best suit the Reagan presidency over eight years, and the first is within the arena of the transformational. More exactly, Reagan had transformational impact, in terms of inspiring the people and imparting a desired vision, through his own charisma, rather than employing strictly charismatic leadership. This transformational quality was, in a sense, abetted by the times; the post-Vietnam nation, confronting new threats in Middle East relations, was virtually poised to be “transformed,” and Reagan’s fatherly, genial image generated the trust levels necessary for the inspiration to carry over to the public. Essentially, image and public need combined to enhance his charisma. There was as well a deliberate quality in this appeal; Reagan, long an actor, understood his charm and enhanced it by overtly referring to his own charisma. He would express that he was an idealist, relate this to Americanism, and create an impression of simultaneous pride and humility (Wallison, 2004, p. 19). No other representation of leadership at this period was more right to the nation.
Beyond transformational charisma, however, the above reinforces the remarkable way in which LMX more powerfully defines the Reagan years. What occurred was a leader-member relationship of exponential reciprocity; as the public sought a specific leadership, Reagan accommodated it, and this is the core of how LMX functions. In the theory, it is assumed that performance of members relies on the strength of the relationship with the leader, but it is equally important that the converse is true (Martin et al, 2016, p. 69). More exactly, the performance quality of the leader is determined by the members. The crises of Reagan’s terms were consistently viewed through the lens of how the public wished them to be viewed, regarding his handling of them. It may be that no other president was poised to succeed as Reagan was, by virtue of a general level of support that would not permit him to fail. This relates to what has been described as Reagan’s “sympathetic magic,” or his ability to present himself as one with the public. It involves a transference of shared ideals or beliefs, in which Americans perceived that what most concerned them was crucial to their president (Raphael, 2011, p. 148). Remarkably, then, Reagan’s leadership, while certainly relying on his attributes, was very much shaped by the public whom he led, and who constructed the role he occupied.
To some extent, no leader in the position of U.S. president adheres to any single leadership model, and because the office is so complex and significant. Nonetheless, certain styles tend to dominate, and the Reagan years present an unusual situation in which a form of transformational leadership relied upon the greater impact of LMX, and LMX as essentially empowering the people to “create” Reagan’s leadership as desired. Reagan’s leadership was transformational as dependent on his charisma, but LMX was the stronger model by virtue of how the American public fulfilled its own ideas of the leader it wanted Reagan to be.
- Martin, R., Guillaume, Y., Thomas, G., Lee, A., & Epitropaki, O. (2016). Leader–member
exchange (LMX) and performance: A meta‐analytic review. Personnel Psychology, 69(1), 67-121.
- Raphael, T. (2011). The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance.
Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
- Wallison, P. (2004). Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His
Presidency. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.