Was Alexander Haig ‘In Control’?

On the 37th anniversary of the infamous “I’m in control” line, experts ponder how much leadership has changed.

It’s as obscure an anniversary as you can find, but many older American will always remember it as one the country’s greatest political faux pas. On this day 37 years ago, following an assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig, serving secretary of the state, asserted that he was “in control” of the White House when, in fact, he was not. Haig’s comment caused such an uproar that it factored into his eventual resignation. Debate raged over whether Haig was making a grab for power in the event of the president’s death, and critics argued that he didn’t understand basic succession as outlined in the U.S. Constitution and its 25th Amendment. 

Though nearly four decades removed from this peculiar moment in American political history, experts say revisiting Haig’s comment through the lens of the current state of leadership proves some intriguing changes. For instance, the directive, command-and-control tone of Haig’s remark reflected not only his military background, but also the in-vogue leadership style in business and politics at the time. Today, the superhero, “I can do it myself” leader has given way to a more agile, collaborative, empathetic style that works better for a globalized, constantly changing world.

“Organizations are flatter now, more matrixed and less hierarchical,” says Stu Crandell, senior vice president for Board and CEO Services with Korn Ferry. “Leaders need to be able to influence many different stakeholders, both internal and external. Being able to navigate that requires an ability to collaborate and influence without ordering.” Put another way, building an aligned and engaged team means leaders must recognize their limitations and create a support network that is much more inclusive.

They also need more emotional intelligence than ever before, and certainly more than they did in the ’80s. In fact, the term emotional intelligence wasn’t even coined back then, while today it’s considered a necessary skill set. From the threat of automation and artificial intelligence to downsizing and globalization, the pressure on workers is intense, and many are looking for a new brand of support and encouragement from leaders. “Complexity, the pace of work, and the demand for accelerated results have created extreme pressure,” says Alan Guarino, vice chairman of the CEO and Board Services practice at Korn Ferry. “Leaders must de-pressurize rather than add pressure on their staffs.”

None of this is to say that Haig’s approach wasn’t right for the situation. The best leaders are nimble and adjust their approach to match what’s needed for a particular worker or circumstance. To be sure, if ever there is a time for a command-and-control, take-charge leader to step up, it is after an assassination attempt on the president. One interpretation of Haig’s comment contends that he wasn’t trying to assume power at all. Rather, he was signaling to citizens, allies, and enemies that the leadership of the United States was stabile and secure. (For his part, Haig, who died in 2010, said he was only proclaiming functional control.) 

Many companies of course have an emergency succession plan in place for the same reason. If something unexpected were to happen to the CEO—a prolonged illness or untimely death, for example—the best boards and governance practitioners have a candidate already designated as CEO, at least on an interim basis. The aim of this contingency plan is to provide leadership stability and continuity for the company and its employees, and also to reassure shareholders, analysts, and other stakeholders. ”When a crisis hits, you want someone who can provide clear direction and a path forward,” says Crandell.