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3 Things Leaders Can Still Learn from JFK

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The coverage this week of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a stark reminder of the impact his life and death had on the United States and the world. With the perspective of fifty years, it’s easy to argue for or against Kennedy’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to debate what he did or didn’t accomplish. You may think he was a great president or you may not.

Still, on this anniversary of his death, I would argue there are still some things that leaders can learn from JFK. Here (with links to JFK videos that illustrate the points) are three things that I think leaders can still learn from John F. Kennedy.

Adapt to the Times: When he ran for President in 1960, Kennedy faced Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. As this short summary from the History Channelpoints out, post debate polling showed that voters who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won. Those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy won. Kennedy understood how to use the emerging technology of television to connect with voters. Effective leaders adapt to the times through effective use of current technology. (See Cory Booker’s use of Twitter for a 21st century example.)

Know Your Impact: As Graham Allison describes in his book, Essence of Decision, Kennedy understood the impact that his presence as the top leader had on the people around him. During the deliberations of his advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK asked his brother, Robert, the attorney general to lead most discussions of what was known as the ExComm. Kennedy wanted to know what his top people really thought and he knew that if he was in the room, people would say what they thought he wanted to hear rather than what they actually thought. To be fully effective, leaders have to know the impact they have on others and adjust accordingly.

Set Stretch Goals: Leaders inspire their followers to go beyond what they thought they could do. When JFK said in September 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he set the ultimate stretch goal. You can see the highlights of him setting this goal in a speech he gave at Rice University (the clip is set to the score of my favorite mini series ever, Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon).

There are certainly lots of opinions on the life and career of John F. Kennedy. What’s yours? What other lessons can leaders learn from JFK?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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