JFK’s Special Brand of Leadership

JFK Photo at cape CanaveralThe 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy has sparked numerous remembrances, tributes and emotions. How is it that half a century after his death he still inspires?

President Kennedy captured my attention as an elementary student.  While only four years old in 1963, he loomed large in my early years as I devoured every JFK biography I could find.  As I grew older, I came to appreciate his power to inspire; I even listened regularly to an album of his speeches.  For me, his words were a personal call to arms – my marching orders – that each of us had an obligation to make the world a better place.  I internalized his message and it became personal.

With all of the documentaries and stories marking the 50th year of Kennedy’s assassination, I am struck by the raw emotion.  This emotion is real – and comes from a personal connection.  It’s not easy for any national figure to develop a relationship with people on this level.  Today, we tune out most public officials, and our modern day politics is notable for its lack of an emotional connection.  But Kennedy’s style was different.  For those who worked closely with him, the grief is still apparent – the loss changed their lives forever.  But even for the millions who never knew him, the connection is real and lasting.


There’s a leadership lesson in Kennedy’s life and death. It speaks to how he made others feel in his presence: good about themselves and their capabilities. He combined this with a reach into the better part of people. His initiatives spoke to a greater purpose – the Peace Corps, the exploration of space, a world free from nuclear weapons.  His use of language elevated both his ideas and the listener’s belief they were capable of higher thinking.  What can you do for your country?

In Tampa, a local film producer interviewed people who were along the motorcade route during Kennedy’s visit just four days before his fateful trip to Dallas. Her documentary ended on a whimsical note; folks remembering that the President looked and connected directly with them.  No one else.   “Our eyes locked” said one; “he looked just at me” said another.  Though the connection lasted only seconds it was clear: the President had a way of making others feel important.

Think about the bosses you have viewed as special leaders. Haven’t they made you feel good about the mission of the organization, good about progress being made and frankly, just good about yourself? Didn’t you grow because they caused you to reach into the better part of yourself?  Set higher standards, accomplish more than you ever thought possible?

It doesn’t take any talent to make a person feel bad.  It takes real talent to inspire people to be at their best.

Kennedy’s legacy is vast, but these core elements of leadership are one reason why, fifty years later, we still mourn.

As a leadership speaker and advisor, Pam Iorio brings to corporate groups and other organizations large and small, valuable leadership lessons and skills honed during her 26 years of public service.
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