Several years ago, I thought I wanted to run for office. Not the local school board or things like that. I truly believed I wanted to run for President someday and had my sights set on a run at Congress as a toe into the political waters. As part of that pursuit, I attended Harvard’s extension school with some incredibly smart, gifted people.
One of the courses I took included a Cold War exercise, where the US faced off against the former Soviet Union in a nuclear arms race. Never one to simply show up and see what happens, I reached out to the professor and volunteered to be the President of the United States. He said Yes.
A couple of weeks later, I received a large envelope in the mail.
The packet said For Your Eyes Only. Inside was a brief on the current situation, with the Soviet Union positioning itself to march into Iran and capture its oil fields. The information that only I was given indicated that western civilization would end if the Soviets were allowed to take Iran. As the President of the United States, it was my job to keep that from happening at all costs, even if it meant using nuclear weapons.
This was a Cold War simulation in Boston, where I was paired with some of the best thinkers at Harvard and pitted against a 40-year expert in Soviet affairs. I’d asked for the role because I wanted to experience the pressure our highest leaders face when making decisions that impact the world. What I learned was invaluable.
The scenario was simple on paper, but overly complex in reality, and designed intentionally to exploit the differences in governmental leadership between the two superpowers. On the US side, I had a cabinet of twelve people, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (an actual officer from the Naval War College in full dress), my Chief of Staff (Professor Tom Nichols, Naval War College), and ten others from across the country. By design, no one had all of the information; no one knew what I did.
There was a larger Soviet team, as well as a United Nations contingent and a Press Corps.
I’ve led weekend-long brainstorm sessions and business workshops, but this was different. This came with the pressure I’d put on myself—a test I needed to know I could pass. Could I be a good US President? The weekend proved to be one of the most exhilarating and exhausting 48 hours on the job I’ve ever experienced.
Even in a simulation, the idea of going to war and using nuclear weapons created enormous pressure.
The day before the simulation started, I ran into Professor Nichols outside a restaurant. He recognized me and asked how my trip was. I told him it was great and was looking for something to eat. He pointed to the restaurant and asked, “Are you ready?” I told him I was, to which he replied, “Good! It’s going to be intense.”
I truly had no idea what I was in for.
When I arrived on location, I was told I needed to be isolated from the rest of the group assembling and was quickly briefed on my first steps as President of the United States.
- When I come to get you, I want you to follow me into the room.
- As you walk in, you will need to go to the head of the table and address your Cabinet.
- Brief the team on what you know. 30 seconds. You will need to inspire confidence and get everyone to work.
- Lastly, give a quick speech and honor your late friend, President Ronald Reagan.
- Get to work. No one will sit until you do.
This was around the time that I’d been doing some television auditions and making some minor appearances, so acting wasn’t too far out there, but you generally get a script for that. This was literally think-on-your-feet stuff with lead-man acting thrown in and zero prep ahead of time.
After five minutes in a room by myself, Chief of Staff Nichols came in to tell me my Cabinet had assembled and was ready for me. I followed him into the war room.
Everyone stood as soon as I walked into the room. They’d obviously been briefed, too. There was a tension in everyone’s face I didn’t expect. I headed to the chair at the head of a long table. Everyone was watching me. No words, all standing. As soon as I hit the table, I told them why we were there, what was at stake, and that we needed to get to work immediately. Everyone was nervous.
I told them how inspired I was by my late friend, Ronald Reagan, and that we weren’t going to let him down. Then I sat down, told everyone else to sit down and strap in, and we began a grueling 48-hour chess match to save Western Civilization.
The next two days were filled with strategy and calculated decision-making. The Soviet side had an advantage: at the head of the table, the “Russian Premier” had a 40-year history of studying Cold War politics and the USSR and knew how to exploit the differences between our governments. Unlike the US, which requires checks and balances of power, our opposition ran like a dictatorship without boundaries. And they knew all of our processes. So it constantly felt like we were behind.
Eventually, the event came to a draw—no clear “winner” of the game—but the chessboard of the Middle East was a mess. Both sides refrained from using nuclear weapons, but Iran was blazing with fires across the country as a result of moves and advances made by the Soviet team and countermoves and strikes by the US team. And by the end of the second day when I led a debrief from the US perspective, everyone was exhausted.
Duties I needed to complete in the middle of an accelerated global conflict included:
- Get briefed by all members of my Cabinet, some of whom were misinformed (intentionally), and make decisions based on that information
- Mobilize the military and move them strategically across the Middle East in anticipation of Soviet advances
- Engage the United Nations and request their support (to no avail)
- Write and deliver speeches to assure the American people of the situation
- Respond to propaganda and misinformation/lies in the press from the Soviets
- Work with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to outline military strategy and tactics
- Draft a war resolution
- Order military advances and strikes against United Nations wishes
There was a moment late in the simulation when I was asked to write a personal letter to the Soviet leader to help him understand what measures I’d take to protect American interests and Western Civilization. In that letter was a sense of humanity (I talked about our families) coupled with a fierce conviction that I’d be willing to take every step necessary to protect them and the American people.
But it came at a time in the conflict when the Soviets had essentially moved further south than we could allow and we ended up having to bomb five different regions of Iran to cut off their supplies from the north and stop them from moving any further south. The country was a raging inferno. And then we called it.
In a 48-hour simulation in Boston, I learned so much about the greatness of the balance of power the Founders built into the US Constitution (and the challenges of decision-making in times of conflict) and how our government can be tested in times of conflict. But the biggest lesson was how incredibly difficult it would be to be the one sitting in the Oval Office. In short, the job of POTUS is crazy challenging.
On a smaller scale though, here are some of my big takeaways:
Leadership style matters. I could have been any type of US President. I chose to be one who cared about everyone and fought for what mattered. It’s important to lead with character, even when others don’t. And when you can, inspire the best in others.
Respect your team. I didn’t have the expertise that others did in the room. And it was clear from the start that I needed them to help inform decisions from the lenses they were given to evaluate the situation. Doing so helped me gain their support when things got super tense.
You have to go for it. Every time. I could have just been a participant in the simulation. Instead, I asked to be the leader so I could get the most out of it. And I did! I’ll never forget the experience, and I’ll definitely treasure the calls I got from my Cabinet of “Four more years!”
Nothing is more fulfilling than putting yourself in situations where you risk something—whether failure or humiliation or anything else you use to fill in why you wouldn’t. You may not get what you think you wanted out of it, but that you did it is really the success. You gain something inside every single time you decide to put yourself out there. At least that’s how I choose to look at it. 🙂
Keep dreaming big. – POTUS for a day