Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What JFK learned -- and taught -- about leadership

By Warren Bennis
November 21, 2013 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT