Monday, 25 November 2013


I was only 4 years old when John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963. I'm not old enough to recall exactly where I was when his death was announced, but I've always been intrigued by the conspiracy theories and by the inconsistencies around the Warren report and the killing of his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK holds a special, some would say romanticised, position in modern American history and 50 years after he died the fascination with his leadership style and his charismatic personality seems undiminished.
Many people argue that JFK would never have coped with the intensity of 21st century media scrutiny as his personal indiscretions would have been magnified and the mystique of his character would nowadays be more rigorously challenged. Maybe so. But at the very least JFK had 3 leadership traits which for me are highly impressive and from which we can still learn a great deal even 50 years after his death –
1. He really knew how to set stretch targets! In fact when he announced in September 1962 that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy but because it is hard”, he really set the ultimate stretch target. This inspired a generation of Americans to take scientific exploration to unbelievable levels and made people believe they could achieve a feat almost beyond comprehension.
2. He was an innovator. When he ran for President in 1960, JFK took on Richard Nixon in the first ever televised presidential debate. He used the emerging technology of TV to connect with voters and to emphasise his youthful vibrancy and modernity.
3. He knew his own power, and he adjusted its impact on others. Kennedy was very aware of his impact on the people around him in the White House and he knew that his presence could dominate every debate and decision. During the Cuban Missile Crisis he insisted that his brother Robert, the Attorney General, led the discussions as JFK wanted to know what his top people really thought, and he knew that if he was in the room then people would be tempted to say what they thought the President wanted to hear rather than what they really believed.
It seems to me that Statesmanship is rare these days on the world stage and I can think of only one current global leader whose leadership credentials are likely to be recalled 50 years from now (Nelson Mandela) but JFK resonates still, not just because of the awful circumstances of his death, but also because of the potency of his leadership even when viewed through a contemporary lens.

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