Lead like John F. Kennedy

November 20, 2013

In this series, biographers explain the leadership style, defining personal traits and lesser-known quirks of prominent figures. Here, Larry Sabato--author of "The Kennedy Half Century”--provides a roadmap to former U.S. president John F. Kennedy.

Greatest leadership skill: Kennedy knew how to challenge the advice and assumptions of so-called experts. During the Berlin crisis, two defense analysts made the case for waging “rational nuclear war” against the Soviets and told Kennedy he could prevail with only limited casualties. Kennedy remained wary and asked probing questions: How could he maintain control once the war began? Wasn’t there a danger of using more bombs than were necessary? How could he keep a limited war from turning into a holocaust? When none of Kennedy’s advisers could provide him with satisfactory answers, the president shelved the proposal. Leaders know when to say no.

Role model: JFK greatly admired Winston Churchill—so much so, in fact, that he made Churchill an honorary U.S. citizen in 1963.

Achilles heel: JFK had a dark side. The same internal fire that fueled his political success could also burn out of control. At 10, he noted in a letter to his father (requesting an allowance increase) that he had “put away childish things.” He achieved that goal in many areas of life, but not in his irresponsible relationships with young, beautiful women—and even, on some occasions as president, with prostitutes. Kennedy’s affairs included a White House intern, the mistress of a Chicago Mafia boss, Jackie’s personal secretary and Mary Meyer, a prominent Georgetown artist. He risked his White House tenure, the welfare of his party, his policy goals and everyone he supposedly held dear.

How he got his way: Most of the time, Kennedy used his wit, charm and intelligence to get what he wanted, but he was not above bullying people and issuing threats. When Kennedy became convinced that some U.S. steel executives had reneged on a promise not to raise prices, he cancelled their contracts with the Defense Department, ordered the FBI to subpoena their corporate and personal records, and held press conferences denouncing their cupidity. He was widely criticized for these actions, but he held firm and the executives were forced to withdraw their price hikes.

Lucky talisman: Kennedy saved the coconut shell he had used to scribble an S.O.S. message when he and his PT-109 crew were stranded on a remote South Pacific island during World War II. He had the shell encased in plastic and wood and used it as a paperweight throughout his presidency.

He would micromanage when: He tended to become a micromanager during crises. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he insisted on personally selecting the first ship to be stopped and boarded by the U.S. Navy as part of its quarantine of Cuba. However, Kennedy deserves credit for choosing wisely: the Marucla was an American-built, Panamanian-owned vessel that had been registered in Lebanon and chartered by the Soviets to carry supplies between the U.S.S.R. and Cuba. He sent a signal to Nikita Khrushchev that although the United States was serious about enforcing the quarantine, it would not risk all-out war by stopping a Soviet-owned ship.

Neatnik or mess: In every picture, Kennedy’s Oval Office desk appears neat and well organized. The conference table in the president’s cabinet room was a different story, however. It was often covered in memos, briefing sheets and other documents, especially during important meetings.

Darkest hour: In April 1961, in what turned out to be one of the worst decisions of his political career, JFK allowed 1,400 CIA-trained paramilitary men to launch an ill-fated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The inexperienced Kennedy had not paid enough attention to the details of the plan, deferred to some military and civilian aides too much, and failed to think through the consequences of his actions. The operation was horribly planned and sloppily executed. As a result, 114 Cuban exiles were cut down on the beach and 1,189 others were thrown in jail to await possible execution.

Unique ability: Kennedy grasped the importance of history and strove constantly to secure a place in it, perhaps in part because of his fatalism. He seized every moment, embraced every challenge and lived life to its absolute fullest.

Favorite book: JFK read a great deal of history. Jackie Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger that her husband first read “Marlborough,” a biography of John Churchill written by Winston Churchill, when he was 10- or 11-years old while recovering from one of his frequent bouts of illness. As president, he became captivated by Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” which portrays World War I as a wretched miscalculation caused by inept military and political leaders who couldn’t figure out how the war began or how to stop it. Kennedy had copies of the book distributed to each of his Army officers.

Daily routines: Even though a young man, Kennedy took a one- to two-hour nap after lunch each day. During that time, White House personnel were under strict orders not to disturb the president unless it was an emergency. He also enjoyed swimming in the White House pool (now the press briefing room) and exercising in the gymnasium, which doctors had prescribed for his bad back. The president was a night owl, working late and also staying up late with Jackie to entertain celebrities, artists, writers and VIPs.

Traits he looked for in those he hired: Birds of a feather--JFK wanted well educated, worldly aides around him. Yet above all, the quality he prized was loyalty.

Way with words: Kennedy hired a superb wordsmith, Ted Sorensen, who substantially wrote JFK’s book “Profiles in Courage,” his stirring inaugural address and many other well-known speeches. Yet Kennedy was no parrot. He was a marvelous editor and wordsmith, too, and he could talk extemporaneously without a text for long stretches.

Least well-known person behind his success: JFK thought more about his older brother Joe than most people realize. Joe was the Kennedy originally groomed for the presidency but was killed during World War II after volunteering for an exceptionally dangerous mission, Operation Aphrodite. The mission involved flying planes loaded with explosives into German targets and Joe’s plane exploded before he could parachute to safety. JFK occasionally had ‘survivor’s guilt’ and, from time to time, would draw on Joe’s fate to make a point. During the crucial West Virginia Democratic primary, JFK fought back against attacks on his Catholicism by telling crowds, “I’m able to serve in Congress, and my brother was able to give his life, but we can’t be president?” Note that he didn’t say “I,” but “we.” His choice of pronouns in this instance is telling.

Best leadership quote: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

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