wisdom to win

 Wisdom to Win
search bar left
search bar right

John F. Kennedy LeadershipJohn F. Kennedy Leadership


John F. Kennedy (1917-63)


American president (known as JFK, pictured right), who captured people’s imagination worldwide.

His 1,000 day presidency (1960-3) was ended by assassination in Dallas, Texas.

His brother and main adviser, Bobby, was also killed in 1968 during his presidential campaign.


For more detail see... 

The March on Washington in the History Highlights section.


What can we learn from his leadership?


1. Style over substanceJohn F. Kennedy Leadership

He had great style and charisma (being handsome, charming and articulate, with a stylish wife, Jackie, pictured right together with their children in 1962),

In 1960 an ex-Massachusetts mayor said that he:

“makes people want to believe in him”.

But his achievements were limited, although vitally important:

  • helping African Americans’ civil rights.
  • saved the world from nuclear destruction in 1962 after Russia had put nuclear missiles on Cuba (the Cuban Missile Crisis).

He also made mistakes:

  • increasing America’s involvement in Vietnam (in 1961 he sent 3,500 military 'advisers' to combat communism).
  • the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the CIA in 1961.


2. Character counts

Despite his political ideals (see point 3), he lacked principles, compassion and self-control and wasn’t a good example for the rest of America to follow.

He left himself open to blackmail and ridicule through hisJohn F. Kennedy Leadership

  • dealings with the Mafia,

He learnt from his father, Joe, that winning is all important, even if it means doing something unethical.

His family motto was “second best is a loser”.

But he was courageous enough to:

  • defend African Americans.
  • resist the demands of the air force to bomb Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis (see point 1).


John F. Kennedy Leadership

3. Learning

During the Cuban Missile Crisis (pictured right with his Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara), he asked his military chiefs and political advisers questions and withheld his views, so they could honestly express their own opinions and possible options.

This gave him the best information and advice to make decisions.


4. Inspirational vision

He inspired many Americans to be idealistic and fight for freedom and equality, particularly with his charisma and great speeches.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, he said in his Inaugural Address in 1960.

 John F. Kennedy Leadership

5. Determination

He was determined to overcome these problems:

  • constant pain caused by Addison's Disease and chronic back problems.
  • the tragic deaths of his big brother, Joe (pictured right above), sister, Kathleen and son, Patrick .
  • his Catholicism (considered to be socially inferior by the American elite)

.john f kennedy leadership

John was the first Catholic president.


6. Pragmatism

His policies were based more on their popularity than his principles, which he adapted to suit the needs of different situations.

For example, he was sometimes tough with Russia (e.g. his rousing “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall in 1963, pictured right), but also conciliatory (as in the Cuban Missile Crisis).

He once described himself as “an idealist without illusions”, because ideals can easily get lost in the dirty business of politics.


 john f kennedy leadership

7. Luck and support

His family’s great wealth and political connections helped him become president - he is pictured right with his two younger brothers (Bobby, left, and Ted, centre).

“With the money I spent, I could have elected my chauffeur”, said his father, Joe.

He was helped by many people, particularly his brother, Bobby, who was his closest political adviser.



Best biography

Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy (2003) 


Key quote on society

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.


Key quotes on change

Change is the law of life.

The time to mend the roof is when the sun is shining.

In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.


Key quote on influencing people

Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.


Key quote on leadership

I am an idealist without illusions.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.


Key quote on negotiation

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”.


Key quote on learning and education

The human mind is our fundamental resource.

Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought


Key quotes on success

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.
Things do not happen. They are made to happen.


Key quote on war

Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.


Key quote on America

I look forward to a great future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.


Key quote on health

The effectiveness and creativity of the individual must rest, in large measure, on his fitness and vitality.

Free Newsletter
Enter your name and e-mail address to receive our free newsletter with analysis of business issues and new business books