6 Lessons from John F. Kennedy for Any Leader

In October of 1962, President Kennedy and his team, faced a crisis that could have resulted in global catastrophe.  Are there lessons to be learned from their successful experience for business leaders facing far less grave situations?

“Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.”
-  David Hume -

There are many sources to learn about leadership and management. Courses, seminars and books are numerous and can be very valuable. However, when we want to learn from the experiences of other leaders, history may be one of the better sources. Historical leaders are among the most documented so their mistakes and success can provide valuable lessons. Initially, I thought, as a manager or leader of a small team or business, I couldn’t possibly learn anything applicable to my job from leaders that have shaped human history.  As I read more and gained more professional experience, I found there was one common element in reading about history and what I was experiencing at work - people.

Just like history - business projects, initiatives, and processes are shaped by people.  Similarly, just like history, business failures may not be destiny but rather the consequences of our individual and group actions.  The Cuban Missile Crisis ended with one fatality but could have easily resulted in a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. Many wars have started where both sides did not want war.  Let’s take a look at why it may not have happened here and see if the lessons learned are also valuable within our day to day management and leadership roles.

Briefing on the Cuban Missile Crisis

For thirteen days, from October 16, 1962 through October 28, 1962, the US and the world came close to nuclear confrontation and war.  Just a month earlier, Nikita Khrushchev, the Chairman of the Soviet Union, promised President Kennedy, that the USSR would not place any offensive weapons in Cuba.  On day 1 of the crisis, the CIA and national security officials, presented aerial photos to the President, showing the beginning of Surface to Surface Missiles being constructed in Cuba with the potential to launch nuclear weapons to many large cities in the U.S.,  including Washington, D.C.

The military advised for an immediate air strike followed by an invasion of Cuba.  After many meetings and deliberation the President decided on a less aggressive action - naval blockade around Cuba preventing any ships from coming in or going out.  Blockades are typically considered an act of war so no one knew how Khrushchev or the Soviet Union would respond.  The Soviet Union initially denied that the missiles existed and talked tough about ignoring the blockade. Both sides mobilized forces for war and maintained a political standoff.  The Soviet Union and Cuba continued preparing the missiles for use.

On October 27, Major Rudolph Anderson, Jr. was shot down by Soviet missiles during a U2 reconnaissance mission for more photographs. This time the military and civilian leaders, even more adamantly, called for an airstrike. The President did not agree as he felt the downing could have been an individual decision rather than one from Khrushchev. One day later he and Khrushchev came up with an agreement on the removal of the missiles and nuclear weapons from Cuba.  It may have been Major Anderson's death that convinced both Kennedy and Khrushchev that events were spiraling out of their control.

Lessons For All Leaders

Thirteen Days BookAfter reading, Thirteen Days, written by Robert F. Kennedy and published a year after his assassination, I have identified six lessons that were critical in resolving the crisis but are equally important in leading many initiatives.  I have tried to add passages written by RFK that support the findings where applicable.  As a key participant, devoted brother to President Kennedy, and close to many of the others on the team, his account may certainly be biased.  However, I believe the points below are considered to be fairly accurate by other sources I have reviewed.

1. Trust Your Team

With the possibility of the missile crisis leading to war and the death of millions it would have been easy for President Kennedy to micromanage the many meetings during the thirteen days.  He decided on day 1 he would not attend all the meetings with his staff. He felt there would be more frankness and candor expressed, rather than what the team may have thought the President wanted to hear, if he was not always present.  He asked for them to meet and come up with a recommendations they could present to him.  The team did not just include the highest level for each department but also individuals who were close to the ground such as ambassadors and national security analysts as well as Kennedy's key advisors.

2. Integrity/Moral Values

By 1962, the United States was already the most powerful country in the world - in both military and economic terms. Cuba was a very small and poor country.  Robert Kennedy, in Thirteen Days, writes about the moral question when the military and key civilian leaders were advocating an air strike.

"Whatever military reasons he and others could marshal, they were nevertheless, in the last analysis, advocating a surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one. This, I said, could not be undertaken by the U.S. if we were to maintain our moral position at home and around the globe. Our struggle against Communism throughout the world was far more than physical survival - it had as its essence our heritage and our ideals, and these we must not destroy... We spent more time on this moral question during the first five days than on any other single matter."

Being a leader doesn't mean never changing your course.  That would be a disaster.  It does mean having a moral compass and a strong purpose to help guide your decisions.  A team will respect a leader that makes mistakes but not one that doesn't have a purpose or an ethical center. 

3. Team Dynamics

Successful teams do not result simply by the talent of the team.  Kennedy's team was the original "The Best and the Brightest".  That moniker has since become a pejorative due to the Vietnam War but in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis it was more applicable in the literal sense. As described in a previous post, a good team is based on the groups feeling of psychological safety - when everyone feels free and safe to speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels.  From Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy writes:

"During all these deliberations, we all spoke as equals. There was no rank, and, in fact, we did not even have a chairman...As a result, ..., the conversations were completely uninhibited and unrestricted. Everyone had an equal opportunity to express himself and to be heard directly. It was a tremendously advantageous procedure that does not frequently occur within the executive branch of the government, where rank is often so important."


4. Goal Setting and Decisiveness

Goals are critical for both leaders and teams, but there can be an inherent danger where our human nature takes over. In most societies, being decisive, confident and in control are seen as virtues of leadership.  In many cases this is absolutely true, however sometimes we can take this too far.  When we make decisions and follow through we feel good - we are emotionally satisfied - check the task as done and move on to the next one.  Psychologist describe this trait as our need for cognitive closure.

The problem arises when the achievement of goals become more important than the result of the goal.  When we get into this zone we may be more close minded, impulsive and prefer conflict over cooperation.  There is a tendency to set the goal that is easily achievable or one where we have complete control over.  Once that goal is set we freeze on it without any other consideration.  Being decisive can become our goal without considering the merit of the decision itself.

When, President Kennedy and his team, was presented with the Soviets placing nuclear weapons in Cuba directly after they insisted they would not - an airstrike would have been a decisive action that both the civilian leadership, military leadership and even most of the country would have easily supported.  It could have been achieved in a few days - box checked by admirable decisive men.  There were members of the team that advocated an air strike and an equal number that supported the blockade.  The President's goal was to eliminate the missile in Cuba without a war. Neither solution would really achieve this goal in full.  Rather than making the easier air strike decision the team spent time on the details of both solutions and presented to the President.  He made the decision to go with the blockade but still had an open mind to the airstrikes and asked the team to prepare accordingly.  For him the goal to eliminate the missiles without war was far more important than being decisive.

5. Empathy

Perhaps, the most important skill a leader can possess is empathy - the ability to stand in another's shoes without actually doing so.  Robert Kennedy, in Thirteen Days, states this to be one of the key lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis and perhaps the primary reason for success.

"The final lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country's shoes.  During the crisis, President Kennedy spent more time trying to determine the effect of a particular course of action on Khrushchev or the Russians than on any other phase of what he was doing.  What guided all his deliberations was an effort not to disgrace Khrushchev, not to humiliate the Soviet Union, not to have them feel they would have to escalate their response because their national security or national interests so committed them... Miscalculation and misunderstanding and escalation on one side bring a counter response... For that is how wars begin - wars that no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins."

I've participated in many projects or meetings where the goal goes from the desired outcome to one of putting someone on the defensive through tone and questions.  The goal of the person on the defensive side shifts from the desired outcome to protecting oneself or defending an action.  Sometimes the debate is about something that is not even relevant to the bigger picture.  I've been on the defensive side myself where I lose focus of the real goal and via anger, frustration and natural human defense mechanisms begin to focus on myself and counter arguing the offensive blitz.  

Fortunately, the results are not as tragic as nuclear war, however, it does unnecessarily delay the task at hand and become unproductive for all involved.  And sometimes these situations can also easily escalate into something that will cause a project or initiative to fail. On the leadership side, I've learned that having a "gotcha" moment or backing someone into a corner very rarely has positive results.  In those moments, it's important to step back and remember the big picture and especially the main goal or objective. 

6. Learning From History

Earlier in 1962, The Guns of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman was published.  The book made a big impression on Kennedy and it played a significant role in Kennedy's approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The book was about the beginnings of World War I, where a war that lasted over 4 years and killed 17 million people. A war that no one really wanted but somehow came about.  It discussed the miscalculations and misjudgment by many of the key participants.  Robert Kennedy writes in Thirteen Days:

"At the outbreak of the First World War the ex-Chancellor of Germany, Prince von Bulow, said to his successor, "How did it all happen?" " Ah, if only we knew, " was the reply." 

We are surrounded by a wealth of knowledge on the human experience that has come before us.  Learning and using that source is extremely valuable.

Final Notes on the Crisis

Thirty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we learned that the Soviet Union had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba.  It was a secret and the Soviets removed them soon after the crisis as they were afraid Fidel Castro would use them as he did not view the outcome of the crisis as a success.  Some of the military leaders on the US side may have agreed with him as they felt the only win would be if Communism was destroyed.  They were willing to live or die with the definite retaliation that would happen after a first strike.  

President Kennedy disagreed, as he had thought through the resulting steps.

"It isn't the first step that concerns me, but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step - and we don' go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so. We must remind ourselves we are embarking on a very hazardous course."

He was right as the Soviet Union has said they would have used the tactical nuclear weapons against the Guantanamo Bay base as well as against the invading force that would have followed the air strikes.

President Kennedy had made some major mistakes early in his term.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was a turning point.  He was always a pragmatist but in his last year before his death his pragmatism was founded on some important beliefs rather than devoid of any.  He began to see civil rights as a moral issue and speak more clearly about the bigger picture when it came to fighting global communism.  At the end of the movie, Thirteen Days, as the credits begin to role we hear the familiar Kennedy voice from a speech he made in June, 1963 that shows his transformation.

"So, let us not be blind to our differences. But let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal."

Like myself, you probably won't be encountering a situation where your decisions could lead to nuclear war anytime soon. At its essence, our own smaller business challenges, just like many grave difficult challenges faced by famous leaders, are problems where an understanding of the technical details, an understanding of all the stakeholders, an understanding of the problem solving group dynamics, a process allowing sound decisions through logic and taking advantage of luck all play a role in a successful outcome.