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 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT