John F. Kennedy on Leadership

John F. Kennedy


John F Kennedy was the personification of charisma. People liked his smile. He knew how to project himself into the hearts of the American people. Behind the charisma and the oratory was substance.

Lesson No. 1: Set High Goals by Sharing a Vision

On July 15, 1960, John F Kennedy in his acceptance speech, at the Democratic National Convention, proclaimed, "We stand on the edge of a New Frontier, the frontier of the 1960s...Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." He dared Americans not to sit back on the status quo but to take up new challenges to push themselves to the limit. He challenged Americans to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Lesson No. 2: Be Independent

John F Kennedy's great mentor was his father. In psychological studies of the presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy were the only presidents more strongly influenced by their fathers than their mothers. It was his father who convinced him to become a politician instead of a journalist after his oldest brother Joe died in World War II. Nevertheless, young John F Kennedy showed an ability to become independent of his father. Nigel Bruce in Reckless Youth argues he broke with his father's isolationism which destroyed the older Kennedy's political career. Against his father's advice, he pursued the vice-presidential nomination vigorously in 1956.

Lesson No. 3: Set an Example by Becoming a Role Model

After a generation of old people at the nation's helm, the Kennedy's were a young couple that the nation could identify with. Both were examples of fashion. Kennedy going hatless changed men's fashion while his wife's pillbox hats created another fashion craze. Although John F Kennedy was a cigar smoker, he did not smoke in public to avoid setting a bad example for the nation's youth. It was obvious that Kennedy that a love for his children as his children romped below his desk.

Lesson No. 4: Be a Life-Long Learner

John F Kennedy a.k.a Jack was often sick as a boy and as an adult. He came down with whooping cough, measles, chicken ox, asthma, and other painful illnesses. His mother Rose remarked that as a child that he had to spend long periods in bed while others were out playing. As a consequence, he passed the time by reading. Among his favorite childhood books were The Arabian Nights, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and especially King Arthur and His Knights. As a teenager, he enjoyed reading Ivanhoe. Although he claimed to have taken an Evelyn Wood speed-reading course, he learned how to read very quickly on his own. As president, he could digest large amounts of material instead of just reading the summaries.

Lesson No. 5: Doing the Little Things Lead to the Big Things

When Jack felt well, he took part in outside activities. Joe and his older brother Joseph had the usual fights as children. Once the two's bicycles crashed and Jack's bloody head required twenty-eight stitches. But the Kennedys were taught never to whine or complain by his father. If he lost a competition, Jack tried to do better the next time.

In 1931, the teenage Jack Choate a fine prep school at Wallingford, Connecticut where he had to compete with his elder brother Joe who did well. The coach of the Choate football team r stated: "The most burning thing I can remember about Jack was that he was a fighter. You take Joe, he was a real athlete. But Jack made up for what he lacked in athletic ability with his fight." Sports remained his greatest passion despite the frequent illnesses he suffered. Even illness and hospitalization could not keep him from practice. He made the junior varsity school squad but his congenital back problems stopped his football career.

Lesson No. 6: Be a Great Communicator

Kennedy was not a naturally great speaker. He spoke in a deadly high-pitched monotone when he first ran for Congress. Kennedy was able to overcome many obstacles, including his strong regional accent, talking too fast, failing to pause, and other impediments. Kenned used no glitzy, multimedia, or platform props, never left the lectern, and broke many any basic rules of speaking.

Once Kennedy realized in 1957 that he wanted to become president, he began to focus to make this happen. He delivered every speech with the passion of his conviction that he could do a better job than anyone else. Kennedy's stated his ideas simply, clothed his topics in visual images, and utilized easily remembered phrases, repetition, one-syllable words, and short sentences. During the television debates with Richard Nixon, he projected charisma.

As president, Kennedy spoke to the nation to soothe its fears, rally it for unity, and challenge it to go forward to its highest aspirations. In 1962, Kennedy communicated how his administration would handle the Cuban missile crisis. In 1963, he spoke to the nation on the need to advance civil rights. Above all, he looked for the best in American people and always found it.

Lesson No. 7: Take responsibility

"I know when things don't go well, they like to blame the President and that is one of things Presidents are paid for" Kennedy once explained. When the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, John F Kennedy took his lumps and declared,?Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," he quietly stated. Instead of shifting the blame to his advisors or the previous administration, Kennedy took full responsibility for the foolish adventure.

Lesson No. 8: Demand excellence from others.

I always admired President Kennedy's ability to speak so well. Almost every president, starting with George Washington, has employed speechwriters to craft their words. Once Ted Sorenson, a speechwriter, wrote an oration for John F. Kennedy. The President asked him, "Is this the best you can do?" Sorenson replied, "No, sir." Sorenson re-wrote the speech. Sorenson came before Kennedy who questioned him: "Is this the best you can do?" and Sorenson answered, "No, sir." Once more, Ted Sorenson re-wrote the address for the third time. He appeared before the president who queried him once more: "Is this best you can do?" Sorenson said this time, "Yes, sir." Then Kennedy accepted the final draft of the speech.

Lesson No. 9: Learn From Failures and Mistakes

The greatest test of John F. Kennedy's presidency came on the morning of October 16, 1962, with bad news. He was shown photographic evidence taken by U-2 airplanes that the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev had placed offensive missiles in Cuba. America faced the danger of a speedy and direct nuclear attack from the unprotected south. On October 24, Kennedy proclaimed a naval blockade. The Soviets blinked and did not push through the blockade.

On October 28, Premier Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles already in Cuba. Even though there was no misreading of the enemy's intention, JFK was well aware of the potential of mistakes that could have been made. Kennedy took advantage of the occasion to arrange for the signing of a treaty to end nuclear tests in the earth's atmosphere. Even more important, he arranged for a direct telephone line to be installed between the White House and the Kremlin in Moscow. Known as the hotline, future American presidents and Soviet premiers could contact each other to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to war.

Lesson No. 10: Have the Courage of Your convictions by Believing in Yourself

I remember the first time that my parents, my brother, and I visited Washington when John F. Kennedy was president that spring, my father gave me as a gift, John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage. John F. Kennedy, who had lived a heroic life, had the right to write a book about other heroes. When he had yet another back operation, he filled in the time of long recuperation by writing about United States Senators who had supported unpopular causes and risked their careers.

The first inaugural address that I ever heard was that of John F. Kennedy. I heard him say, "Ask not what your country can do for your country but what you can do for your country." As a result of that speech, John F. Kennedy's charisma captured me. John F. Kennedy had lived that speech although he had come from a background of wealth and privilege and suffered from ill-health. Kennedy, suffering from severe back pain from his life, never complained. He spent at least half his days as president using crutches.

Even before the United States entered World War II in 1941, Jack had enlisted in the navy. Although he had experienced as a sailor like all the other Kennedys, he was originally rejected as physically unfit but found a loophole by applying for naval intelligence which had a less rigorous physical examination. After Pearl Harbor, Kennedy volunteered for more active duty. He used his father's influence to get into the action instead of seeking a port of safety.

On August 1, 1943, his boat PT-109 was sunk by a Japanese battleship in the South Pacific. He displayed his courage by leading his crew to safety on an island. A veteran of the Harvard swimming team, he towed a disabled crew member. The exhausted survivors were rescued, thanks largely to the indomitable spirit of their leader. When a student asked, "Mr. President, how did you become a war hero?" Kennedy joked. "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."

Lesson No. 11: Be a Team Leader

John F. Kennedy organized the "Muckers Club." He and a group of friends engaged in mischievous misdeeds for which they were duly punished. Unlike his older brother Jack who did not make the right clubs at Harvard, he had such an engaging personality that his friends refused to join these clubs unless he could become a member also. Kennedy's PT-109 crew was devoted to him. When Kenney chose to run for Congress in 1946 in the Eleventh Massachusetts Congressional District in Boston, his buddies from the navy and the college pitched in to help with his campaign.

Lesson No. 12: Show Compassion

On March 1, 1961, Kennedy signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps, to be headed by his brother-in-law Sargeant Shriver. Soon, idealistic Peace Corps volunteers were offering their knowledge to needy countries. Instead of throwing money to solve problems, the program enabled Americans young and old to share their skills in foreign lands. Lillian Carter, the mother of future president Jimmy Carter, took part in the program.

Lesson No. 13: Be Lucky

Kennedy was lucky to have lived at the time he did. The press had a sense of privacy at the time that no longer exists. A landlady who had photographs of John F. Kennedy visiting one of his mistresses tried to get the press to publish them. They refused. Today, the media would expose his womanizing, his father's unscrupulous use of money, and his serious illnesses. Kennedy had lost two siblings by the time he became president. He pushed himself so hard to become president at such a young age because he feared he short time to live.


The eternal flame over John F. Kennedy's grave is a symbol of courage, fortitude, and determination. Americans of my generation know exactly where we were when he was assassinated. Whether or not we voted for him, he will always remain a hero of our generation and an inspiration for future ones.

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