The Kennedys and Leadership: A Reappraisal

Posted on 9th September, 2009

This piece was also published by The Huffington Post:


Much has been written over the years about the Kennedy family and leadership.


But the focus has tended to be on JFK and RFK, rather than their younger brother.


So in the wake of Senator Edward Kennedy’s death, let us revisit this.


I have never been so naïve as to set out what I believe to be the inalienable, definitive characteristics of effective leadership: because I do not believe that is possible.


But I do know, however, that leadership is - in part - about vision and that it is - in part - about single-mindedness. In which case, one is hard-pressed to find better examples than Jack and Bobby respectively.


President Kennedy was nothing if not a great orator, capable of creating and communicating a vision of America’s future. I have blogged before ( about the sheer power of his 1961 “man on the moon” speech (quite possibly the best ever example of a well-deployed SMART objective) but that is merely one part of a vast anthology of epochal speeches which includes such gems as “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You”, as well as the iconic “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”. Vision by the bucket-load from Jack, then.


His brother Robert’s relentless, often unfashionable, championing of minority interests, particularly those of black America, was doubtless instrumental in the development and furtherance of equality in the United States. As Attorney-General, Bobby was asked in May 1962, "What do you see as the big problem ahead for you, is it crime or internal security?" The reply? "Civil rights”. Single-mindedness was never a problem for this Kennedy.


Inspirational stuff, all right, as countless leadership books and courses will tell you.


But are these (admittedly fascinating) examinations of Jack’s stirring rhetoric and Bobby’s unremitting pursuit of justice genuinely helpful to today’s leaders? Or do they – in fact – miss the mark by appearing remote from the leadership challenges experienced by most leaders today?


Because unlike the former President and Attorney-General, most of us do not occupy a world where great speeches and noble thoughts suffice. And most of us do not, moreoever, die so young and so rich that our legacies are forever preserved and polished.


Instead, as leaders we find ourselves locked into lives which are necessarily stacked with painful obstacles, hard nitty-gritty and a huge amount of compromise. This doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t aspire to the lofty heights to which Jack and Bobby so effortlessly ascended, just that – very often – our immediate leadership concerns are a good deal more prosaic.


So step forward Ted. Because - having been denied the Presidency - the Kennedy family’s baby brother had no chance but to carve out a different type of leadership: and a much more realistic one.


Like us, Ted Kennedy didn’t have the “benefit” of dying young and being frozen in time, as his brothers have been. Rather, this leader was unmistakably human. And a flawed human at that. But that is what makes his brand of leadership so much more accessible than those of his brothers. Over forty years of public life, this Kennedy, like us, encountered those painful obstacles, that hard nitty-gritty and the concomitant, necessary compromise. And he achieved so much in spite of that. Perhaps even because of it.


Forced by history into becoming the deal-doer’s deal-doer, with his sleeves rolled up and an understanding that political enemies could also become legislative friends, Senator Edward Kennedy was arguably significantly more influential during his lifetime than either of his brothers were during theirs.


A man who eschewed the glamour bestowed upon, and perhaps even sought by, both Bobby and Jack. A man who chose to envelop himself in the dry, hard, bureaucratic process that is law-making. A man who was prepared to let others take the credit for work that was largely his own, even if the ‘other’ in question happened to be a certain Republican President that had ‘history’ with the Kennedy family.


Too many leaders, in government and outside it, believe that leadership is about ideas and speeches. These are, of course, important. Necessary, in fact. But ideas and speeches do not bring about change.


Only action brings about change. And Ted Kennedy knew that.


The rhetoric and mythology that had served his brothers so well was never – post Chappaquidick – going to be sufficient to sustain for him a serious, long-term career in the Senate.


And so was formed perhaps the greatest of all the Kennedy leaders: the ultra-liberal who co-authored laws with Orrin Hatch, the anti-Iraq war voter who partnered with President Bush on No Child Left Behind, the scion of an establishment dynasty who refused to create another and endorsed a risky candidate called Barack Obama instead. Above all else, the Kennedy who learned, perhaps the hard way, of the overwhelming importance of doing.


Richard Lacayo put it eloquently in Newsweek recently: “He took the mythology and shaped it into something real and enduring.”


Indeed. A life defined not by one singular choice but instead by a clear, deliberate direction. Whether TMK chose that direction or whether it chose him, his life’s journey now stands as one of the finest examples of American leadership that we have yet encountered. At his wake, Senator Dodd said, “John Fitzgerald Kennedy inspired America. Robert F. Kennedy challenged America.


Our Teddy changed America”


He sure did. That’s real leadership.


with special thanks to both

Tom Fletcher of 10 Downing Street, London


Marc Adelman of Adelmania Consulting, Washington, D.C.




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Comments (1)

Not being interested by politics, I had not heard of Ted Kennedy until he put his weight behind Obama's primary campaign. In light of this I do not profess to knowing the details of his life. However it appears that he is a man that is guilty of manslaughter while also being a sponsor of terrorism, neither of which he has admiited to, or apologised for.

As such I am slightly bemused by his iconic status. Personally I can think of better examples of 'real leadership'.