Nick Ragone

Presidential leadership lessons for crisis managers

Ketchum Partner (and my boss) Nick Ragone recently launched his fourth book, Presidential Leadership:  15 Decisions That Changed the Nation

Among those fifteen decisions, there are five lessons that are particularly relevant for crisis managers:

1)  Get out ahead of an issue.  Nick focuses on President FDR’s mission to move the United States from an isolationist to interventionalist nation to provide counterbalance as the threat of war became more evident.  FDR addressed the nation early and often to emphasize the possibility and importance of U.S. involvement – a wise foundation to set prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

  • Many organizations can begin to address emerging threats before they occur.  Set foundations for employees or address industry issues in advance of flashpoints.  These actions can help provide focus and context for an organization’s mission, should a crisis occur.


2)  Evolve thinking over time.  Nick’s chapter that focuses on the Civil War shows how President Lincoln evolved from a Unionist to adopt a greater mission for the good of the nation. 

  • Great crisis managers can learn from this.  It is important to properly “define the problem” in the early stages of a crisis.  However, it’s equally important to continually evaluate factors and re-define the problem and calibrate the approach to how a crisis is managed over time.


3)  Take ownership.  When President George Washington wanted to repress the Whiskey Rebellion, he certainly could have sent a capable militia.  Instead, Washington chose to personally ride into Pennsylvania to send a message that he was in charge of resolving matters. 

  • An organization’s leaders must learn to take demonstrable actions to helps outline responsibilites or what parts of the crisis it will “own” to resolve.


4)  Make tough decisions.  Nick provides several examples here, but perhaps the most memorable is when President Truman decided to fire the highly popular (and highly insubordinate) Douglas MacArthur from his post as Supreme Commander in the Korean War.  The decision was one of the most unpopular in presidential history, but important to preserve the respect of the presidency of the U.S. 

  • Crisis management leaders must often be decisive in favor of what is right, versus what is popular. 


5)  Provide inspired vision.  Nick cites both President JFK’s space race challenge and President Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech as focal points toward greater goals for American and democracy progress.

  • Great crisis managers should also try to articulate “exclamation point”missions that are easy to embrace and provide the necessary inspiration to keep an organization focused toward a common goal.

Have a comment on this post or on Nick’s book?  Post it below.

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