JFK’s leadership and legacy: 5 lessons for today’s leaders

JFK's Leadership and Legacy: 5 Lessons for Today's Leaders

Presidents Day often prompts reflections on leadership. And regardless of what you think of the man or his policies, there’s no denying that John F. Kennedy inspired a nation to dream big and then turn those dreams into reality.

This JFK snapshot provides 5 lessons for today’s leaders.

1. Ask great questions

JFK's Leadership and Legacy: 5 Lessons for Today's Leaders
via Wikipedia

Space leadership had become a measure of world leadership. America was already behind the Russians, who had launched a man into space April 12, 1961.

Kennedy responded to the Soviet achievement by doing what the best leaders do. He posed the key question: “Is there any…space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”

Experts scrambled and advised Kennedy that putting a man on the moon was seen as a race where the U.S. “may be able to be first.”

Armed with this assessment, Kennedy made the first of many “hard decisions” related to America’s space program. On May 25, 1961, JFK challenged America with the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” He wanted it done “before this decade is out.”  And he wanted to beat the Russians.

2. Play to win

Kennedy’s competition was the Soviet Union. The American-Soviet Cold War battle was for preeminence in space. The stakes were enormous.

JFK's Leadership and Legacy: 5 Lessons for Today's Leaders
via Outside the Beltway

Speaking in Houston on September 12, 1962, JFK declared, “We choose to go to the moon.” In that speech he provided the rationale for this audacious initiative and the specifics for winning.

Competing, said JFK, was not enough. “Everything we do,” said Kennedy, “ought to really be tied into getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians.” Some leaders confuse making money with their organization’s purpose and then wonder why their employees are less than enthusiastic about meeting performance objectives. People want to win. Leaders put their people in position to claim victory.

Are we committed to winning?

3. Unify and inspire people

Great leaders inspire people to rally around a cause that’s bigger than themselves. This is the reason your organization’s mission (its purpose beyond making money) and vision (where you’re going) are so important. They must translate beyond the financial performance of the organization. They must inspire people to show up every day and give their best. This is how top-performing organizations drive accountability.

Does your firm’s mission give your team something to cheer for?

4. Challenge your team

America started from a position well behind the Russians with the odds stacked heavily against it.In casting his high risk/high reward vision, JFK surrendered day-to-day decision-making, effectively motivating his colleagues to solve their own problems. Owning the outcome forged commitment and drove peer accountability.

Is everyone committed? Does everyone know what is expected of them to help us win?

5. Make your challenge public

Public commitments drive personal and organizational accountability. JFK made public his vision of beating the Russians to the moon. And he held NASA accountable for winning the race. For people of strong character, falling short is an embarrassment – perhaps the most undesirable of consequences.

Are the people on your team capable of overcoming incredible challenges? If not, what – or who – is holding them back?

The power of Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech resonates today, providing a blueprint for any leader seeking to unify a group of people in order to accomplish a difficult task.

What are you doing to move from success to significance?

What legacy are you leaving?

Category: Leadership

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Greg Bustin About the Author: Greg Bustin

Greg Bustin is a 15-year Vistage Master Chair with two Chief Executive groups, a Key Executive group and an Emerging Leader group in Dallas. He is also a Vistage speaker and has delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five conti…

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