Leadership Lessons from Kennedy and Reagan

With eight inches of fresh snow coating the ground and frigid temperatures hovering just above 20 degrees, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of The United States of America on January 20, 1961. During his inaugural speech, he proclaimed that he would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

This lofty language is not uncommon during inaugural addresses that are often filled with hope, high ideals and possibilities of greater things to come. The hardships and challenges of the day may be addressed, but these sentiments are typically buttressed with comments of progress and the nation’s ability to overcome. In his own address, Ronald Reagan did not shy away from issues like high inflation and unemployment, but he quickly turned his message to one of action and hope, stating, “We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow,” followed by, “It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams.”

Despite noble intentions, both Kennedy and Reagan had to change tactics and expectations once taking office as they contended with realities far more complicated than what was conceived of during their respective campaigns. Action is always more difficult than talk. Due to factional interests, limited resources, differing agendas, beliefs and the overall complexity of mobilizing dynamic human systems, both men had to adapt. Equally important, both men had the willingness to place higher ideals above self and party.

Reagan swept into office with the promise of rejuvenating a stagnant economy by reducing government spending and significantly lowering taxes. Once elected, he did just that, signing a bill that would phase in a twenty-three percent reduction in individual rates. However, once deficit projections began to skyrocket, Reagan had to adapt, change directions and work with lawmakers across the aisle. This did not reflect weakness or hypocrisy, but a requisite nimbleness when making decisions in a dynamic world. Reagan did not abandon his principles, but when faced with new information, he pivoted to address new challenges.

Tax historian and the director of The Tax History Project, Joseph Thorndike, described the times, writing:

“Lawmakers must have had fun in that binge of tax reduction, but the fiscal hangover proved to be a bear. Almost immediately, lawmakers began to have second thoughts. Deficit projections began to rise sharply, worrying traditional conservatives who still believed in balanced budgets. When those deficits began to materialize, pressure grew for a tax hike. In 1982 Reagan agreed to a substantial tax hike. More followed in 1984 and 1987, further eroding the 1981 reductions.” (Historical Perspectives: Reagan’s Legacy)

Like Reagan, Kennedy had economic concerns when entering office and promoted extensive tax cuts as a solution. It was not domestic policy, however, that would come to define his leadership as president. In his book, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, George C. Herring discusses Kennedy’s need to contend with the contrast between campaign visions and leadership realities. While he may have strived for a balance between idealism and pragmatism in his foreign policy, critics found the administration’s foreign policy apparatus “disorderly” and “chaotic.” The relationship between the military and civil population was strained. Abroad, Kennedy “was unprepared for the magnitude of the problems” and leaned heavily on a cadre of experts. When it came to one of his first tests as a leader, The Bay of Pigs, Kennedy failed miserably and was filled with a sense of humiliation as well as guilt for the lives lost. As opposed to finding various constituencies to blame, he took ownership of the failure, issuing the now famous quote, “victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

The Bay of Pigs served as the foundation for increasing pressure, which also included political attacks from all sides and brewing troubles in Laos and, above all, The Soviet Union. It was with this cloud hanging overhead and a perception to many that he was indecisive and weak that he walked into a “stormy” summit meeting with Krushchev. It did not go well. In Kennedy’s own words, Krushchev “just beat the hell out of me.” Had his presidency only been defined by these events, it would not have been viewed favorably, with Kennedy likely being his own worst critic.  

Then, in October of 1962, Krushchev attempted to place tactical missiles in Cuba, bringing the world to the brink of war. After his earlier meeting with Krushchev, Kennedy had said, “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts…we won’t get anywhere with him.” It was with this resolve that he faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy had learned lessons from his past experiences and mistakes. Though his actions were not without fault, Kennedy “displayed skill in crisis management.” Furthermore, he was “firm but restrained…sought advice from different quarters…left Krushchev room to retreat” and “he did not gloat in apparent U.S. victory.” As a result, the world issued a global sigh of relief when Krushchev relented and pulled his missile-bearing ships back.

What lessons in leadership can be gleaned from Kennedy and Reagan?

Communicate a shared understanding of your vision

Leaders need people to achieve their vision of what can be. Those who cannot communicate effectively, are more likely to fail. A leadership vision should answer four questions:

  • What does success look like?
  • Why is success important?
  • How will success be achieved?
  • When will success be achieved?

A leadership vision lets people know the what, why, how and when of achievement. In their inaugural addresses, both Kennedy and Reagan adeptly laid out a vision of the future, leaving little question as to the direction they wanted to take the country. (Another example of communicating a vision can be heard in Kennedy’s Moon Speech. He does a masterful job of not only building emotion, but in outlining the tactical measures that would be taken.)

Does your team know their leadership’s vision? If someone were to ask each member of your team what success looks like, how well they are doing in measurable terms, why success is important, how will it be achieved and when it needs to be achieved by, would they all have the same response and would those responses match up with that of their organizational leaders? Don’t assume. According to a survey conducted by one of the founding voices in performance management, Thomas Gilbert, 35% of people consider poor communication and information dissemination to be the biggest factor to not achieving higher performance. This survey has been duplicated numerous times in recent years, yielding the same results.

Learn and adapt

Adaptation requires leaders to take stock of mistakes, learn from them, pivot and move forward, focusing less on their feelings about the past and more on their actions in the future. They must have high levels of self-awareness and reflection that allow them to confidently change direction when faced with new information and realities. Imagine if Reagan had not been willing to adapt to his circumstances while having the confidence to take action after reassessing the economic situation. Or, if Kennedy would not have reflected on his past failures with The Soviet Union and adapted his tactics to new global realities? What if they had let their egos prohibit them from seeing their actions and mistakes clearly? There’s no way of truly knowing, but the results likely would not have been good.

Both men’s willingness to eschew dogmatism in favor learning and adaptation did not weaken them; it made them stronger.

Own your mistakes

Strong leaders understand what they can control, what they cannot and then focus on what is in their power to effect while owning the results of their decisions, recognizing that the proverbial buck stops with them. They also understand that missteps are the inherent and necessary risk to achieving progress. Mistakes do not necessarily equate to failure and defeat; they are learning opportunities from which one can become more effective. Though they understand the significance and impact of external forces – competitors, the economy, technology – they do not blame those forces for their failures. Nor do they point a finger at their team unless it is to give them credit for a “victory.” Both Kennedy and Reagan did not hide from their past actions. They owned them. Their ability to do so helped them to use past mistakes to inform future decisions and, ultimately, be successful.

In these polarized times, it must unfortunately be said that the intent of this article is not political. Above all, Kennedy and Reagan’s actions should teach us that closing our minds to contrary perspectives is dangerous and limits our ability to recognize opportunities to learn and grow as both leaders and individuals.

What lessons from the many great men and women who have led throughout history have you learned?

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Matt Nelson

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