Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What JFK learned -- and taught -- about leadership

By Warren Bennis
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev speaks to the East German Communist Party Congress on January 14, 1963. His public statements in Berlin indicated the USSR did not immediately plan a full-scale revival of its efforts to force the Western occupation powers out of the former German capital. 1963 was a seminal year, not only because of the <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/14/politics/gallery/jfk-the-day/index.html' target='_blank'>assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy,</a> but advances in technology, entertainment and evolving political relationships also kept the world on its toes. Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev speaks to the East German Communist Party Congress on January 14, 1963. His public statements in Berlin indicated the USSR did not immediately plan a full-scale revival of its efforts to force the Western occupation powers out of the former German capital. 1963 was a seminal year, not only because of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, but advances in technology, entertainment and evolving political relationships also kept the world on its toes.
HIDE CAPTION
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
In the year 1963
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Warren Bennis: JFK had a lot to prove to people when he was elected
  • The President who dealt with disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion learned a lesson, he says
  • Bennis: In Cuban missile crisis, JFK created a culture of candor in his inner circle
  • He says few presidents or chief executive officers have followed in his path

Editor's note: Warren Bennis, a pioneer in leadership studies, is the author of more than two dozen books and has served as an adviser to four presidents. He is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California. Watch "The Assassination of President Kennedy" on CNN TV Thursday, Nov. 21 at 9 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 22 at 10p.

(CNN) -- I vividly recall those 13 days in the fall of 1962, watching President John F. Kennedy on our black and white television in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was a professor at MIT focusing on the emerging field of leadership studies, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was about leadership writ large for the world to witness.

Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination, there is conversation everywhere about JFK's unrealized potential. Amid the wave of sentimental reflection this year, there has been much focus on the mythical elements of Camelot or too many details about that tragic day in Dallas, and not enough on the real-world challenges of the JFK presidency.

Warren Bennis
Warren Bennis

I believe Kennedy's legacy as a leader during the immensely difficult times of the early 1960s has been underestimated -- today, his imprint on the world political scene is powerful and far-reaching.

From the outset of his presidency, Kennedy had a great deal to prove to the country and to his hometown of Boston. There was a saying that the 617 area code, which included Boston and Cambridge, was the most opinionated enclave in the country, which I believe to be accurate. Many of my colleagues and friends at MIT and Harvard were skeptical of Kennedy. There was a sentiment that perhaps he did not have the gravitas to be president, that he was too young, too inexperienced, too dependent upon his powerful family.

Kennedy in Japan
JFK memories and conspiracies live on
Remembering November 22nd
Caro: How JFK's death helped LBJ
Ken Burns: JFK is an unfinished story

I met John Kennedy in 1959 in Hyannis Port during the early stages of his presidential campaign, and would later serve on a Federal Aviation Administration task force that he created. I was initially impressed with him -- he was engaging and moved easily from the daily demands of campaign responsibilities to the larger issues before him in the presidential race.

Still, after he was inaugurated in January 1961, we could not have predicted how the presidency would unfold. For me, and for many others, the defining moment of his administration remains the Cuban Missile Crisis. Watching Kennedy and his team play one of the highest stakes poker games that the world had witnessed was at once exhilarating and frightening. His mastery of diplomacy and politics succeeded in getting the Russians to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba.

This was a very different Kennedy from the uncertain president who failed miserably in the Bay of Pigs invasion. The difference? JFK had learned from his mistakes and the groupthink mentality of the Bay of Pigs. His management of the Cuban Crisis became a legendary example of a leader drawing the best from multiple advisers and making his decisions only after weighing each very different contribution.

Kennedy learned that in order to succeed, he must create a culture of candor among his inner circle, that he needed the confidence to hear their truths, and his team in turn the courage and freedom to speak those truths. This remains today a lesson that far too few presidents -- or CEOs -- since Kennedy have embraced.

The successful outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis would not have been possible had Kennedy not recruited some of the sharpest minds of his era, those David Halberstam would later famously describe as the best and the brightest. Kennedy intentionally made government service attractive, to ambitious, intelligent achievers through his diverse cabinet and state department appointments.

Much like Thomas Jefferson, Kennedy believed in the value of great ideas and people, surrounding himself with the smartest people in any room.

But perhaps Kennedy's greatest quality as a leader was his ability to inspire -- to reach the American people on an emotional and personal level.

Like FDR, Kennedy transcended a patrician background to touch the hearts of everyday Americans. His inaugural speech set the tone for his presidency, and when he implored an optimistic audience to do for their country, they listened and responded. They believed in him as he launched an aggressive space exploration program, they volunteered as he created a new global volunteer program called the Peace Corps, they followed the every move of his beautiful wife and children.

Almost 50 years after that horrific day in Dallas, Caroline Kennedy -- the only living member of JFK's Camelot -- stood in front of a Senate committee and was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Japan. She captured the enduring leadership legacy of her father as she pledged that she was committed to "public service, a more just America and a more peaceful world."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Warren Bennis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT