Soon-to-be-college graduates worried about starting a career in a tough economic climate can find encouragement from how President Ronald Reagan overcame many obstacles when he graduated college in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression when the unemployment rate was 24 percent.
Lessons on leadership and Reagan's life told by best-selling author and speaker Margot Morrell in Reagan's Journey, highlights the fact that, "even storied careers have ups and downs. Ronald Reagan's was no exception. Throughout his career, Reagan used timeless strategies to coach himself through economic slumps, industry upheavals, and personal challenges. With determination and effort, he climbed to the top of five professions – sportscaster, Hollywood star, union leader, public speaker, and statesman."
How did he do it? Morrell wondered. Over time she found that Reagan's success started when he identified his own talents and strengths. "Through a conversation with his mentor, he focused in on who he wanted to be and who he was," she explains. His mentor, Sid Altschuler, a successful Jewish businessman from Kansas City, Mo., asked Reagan a life-transforming, and quite simple question – "What would you like to do?" His question and attention opened up a new way of thinking for Reagan, who spent a "couple of days and sleepless nights" figuring out his answer. He narrowed down his response to three areas. He discovered that he wanted to "entertain people," he was interested in sports, and he loved politics. He found that these were his God-given strengths and interests.
Morrell points out in her talks worldwide that leaders today can gain insight from Reagan's example. "At every crossroads in his career, he revisited his strengths and considered how they best fit where he was in life and what was going on in the world."
The key themes of Reagan's Journey include timeless strategies Reagan used over and over again to become so successful. "It wasn't that his life was so easy," she says. "Like everyone else he hit roadblocks."
Morrell points to several low points in Reagan's life.
In 1933 he was hired as a full-time sportscaster, but within weeks he was fired. The station's advertisers didn't like how he delivered their commercials. Even in a crisis – losing his job – he maintained a good rapport with his boss and maintained a positive attitude. And, through a string of circumstances, Reagan got his job back. Thanks to some coaching sessions with his boss, he was willing to listen to advice and put in the time and effort to achieve his goal.
In 1949 Reagan shattered his right thigh in six places while playing baseball. For two months, he was laid up in traction in a Santa Monica hospital. Doctors told him there was a strong possibility he'd be left with a limp. He assured them he would recover fully and fast. And he did. How did he do it?
While he was in bed, he recorded a radio program about three inspiring sports heroes – a blind wrestler, who went on to gain a law degree from an Ivy League school; a jockey thrown from a horse in the middle of a race who was declared dead and twenty minutes later ran back to the course and rode the rest of the day's races; and a Notre Dame football player.
Another setback was in 1951 when Reagan turned 40. His first wife, mega-star Jane Wyman, divorced him. His career had flat-lined. He had no idea that even a better marriage or astonishing career success in entertainment and politics lay ahead.
What did he do to start over? And what can others learn from his experience?
Morrell identifies five lessons from Reagan's life from which others can learn. First, identify your God-given gifts and strengths. Second, know that even during your darkest hours that tremendous success may lie ahead. Third, never give up. Fourth, focus on your attitude, maintaining a positive attitude, is everything. Fifth, to achieve great success you'll need the help of mentors, a supportive spouse, and a team."
Ronald Reagan was "a poor kid from nowhere" Morrell emphasizes, who decided at age 14 that he wanted to go to college – when only 7 percent of the population was attending college. When he graduated, unemployment was so high it was unlikely that he would be able to find a job, but he did.
Morrell wrote Reagan's journey over a period of five years and found that writing his story has enabled her to use and share her own gifts. "I can see the Lord was working to open doors and arrange opportunities for me. Writing this story was following the Lord's lead and walking through the doors that He opens. He is the shaper and motivator."
With Reagan, she says, "I had no idea that faith was such a strong influence on his life. I think that the one thing that Reagan and I have in common is that each of our lives is a journey of faith."
Reagan dealt with massive challenges throughout his life. "The Lord was with him and guided him, and by extension, He is with us and guides us through our challenges."
Morrell marvels at how Reagan knew and lived the Bible. She says, "I was telling a Christian recently how he always focused on people's strengths – especially if he didn't like the person. The Christian cited Philippians 4:8-9; specifically the part of focusing on whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, to think about such things."
Morrell, a New Yorker at heart, worked on the Reagan Transition Team in 1980. After that she worked in the financial sector for several decades.
She now offers a leadership development program based on her first book Shakleton's Way, to executives, professionals, and students, who like Reagan, want fulfilling careers and rewarding lives. Morrell helps others identify their talents and strengths, encourages them to cultivate valuable mentor relationships, harness networks of contacts, develop a productive attitude, and map out a powerful plan for the next stage of their professional life.
The goal behind Morrell's program is to help others "create a book about themselves," to consider whether a new opportunity is in sync with one's values or fits with long-term goals. At each point in one's life, she reminds people to use the three characteristics they've identified about themselves, as Reagan did, as a compass through life. Reagan identified his core values and innate talents and set about to put them to work. Her encouragement to others is that they can do the same.