If one remembers the presidency of John F. Kennedy or reads accounts of it, there is a phrase that is inextricably tied to his legacy. It is said that John F. Kennedy was a “charismatic leader”, right for the times.
Just what is charisma? How does it apply to leadership? And why can it be so effective? To answer these questions in context, let’s look backward in time.
Under a crisp October sky in 1957, Americans looked skyward with trepidation as bright light streaked across the heavens. It wasn’t a star or meteor; it was the Russian satellite Sputnik. And, to many, its appearance signaled the beginning of the end for America – surely a Soviet invasion would soon follow. American was chilled to the bone and in the throes of fear.
Still worse, six years later, also in October, Russian missiles were staging in Cuba, just 97 miles from American shores. This period in American history and for the world itself is marked, as one it’s most dire. And, yet, America had all it needed in a charismatic Senator from Massachusetts who would preside over this gave period and inspire us to prevail over our collective fears. His name was John F. Kennedy – 35th President of the United States and just the right leader for the time if not all times.
It is said that when a society faces fear, it looks towards a charismatic leader for redemption. Such a leader can persuade the masses to believe that they can persevere. It is what they need the most and what a charismatic leader provides.
The Nature of Charisma and its Meaning
The Webster dictionary states, “charisma” means “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure” (Webster, 2008). The derivation of the word is from the Greek, charizesthai, which translates as “gift”. Truly a charismatic leader is a “gift” to many. Further, According to Dr. John C. Maxwell,
“Leaders who have this special ability share four things in common: They Love Life – they celebrate and embrace it; They Value the Potential in People – they actually believe in them; They Give Hope – all of us are reluctant optimists, needing just inspired leadership to help us believe again; and, lastly, They Share Themselves - they embrace the power of inclusion.”
The Charismatic Qualities of JFK
John F. Kennedy became our youngest President at the age of 43. He inherited an America poised on economic collapse, bereft with social unrest and faced with mounting external threats from the Soviet Union. Despite these challenges, Kennedy was a man of vigor – he loved life.
He had distinguished himself as a student at Harvard University, in battle during World War II as a commander of a PT boat and in prose as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Profiles in Courage. He loved to sail in Massachusetts Bay and would play touch football with his siblings and other family members no matter the occasion or location. With his same vitality he championed the arts as an expression of the hopes and dreams of all people. As The Washington Post noted in its agreement to name the nation’s new cultural center after Kennedy, its editorial offered that he “was the embodiment of life and vivacity”. (Meersman, 1980).
Kennedy, by his nature valued the potential of people. Despite long standing racial divides, Kennedy committed himself and his administration to “revolution of human rights”. (White House, 2008). He oversaw the rise of the civil rights movement and embraced it. He enacted civil rights legislation and had his brother, Bobby, assure its enforcement as the Attorney General. Foremost, he believed in people and the notion that ordinary people could make a difference in communities both at home and abroad. With his Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, he “brought American idealism to the aid of developing nations”. (White House, 2008). During his brief three year term in office, cut short by an assassin’s bullet, he led the longest sustained expansion of American infrastructure and employment since World War II.
However, of all the challenges America and the world itself faced in the early 60’s, none was direr than the seemingly inevitable nuclear annihilation spawned from our conflict with the Soviet Union – the USSR. The Russians, first in space and advancing rapidly in their technology were clear about their disregard for America and its society. Their Chairman and leader, Nikita Khrushchev made the mission of the Soviet Union clear, announcing to America as early as 1956 “we will bury you”.(Time, 1956) While there may have been an issue with translation from Russian to English, it had become clear that the Soviet Union had grand designs in their global view of the world. That same year, Kennedy was a senator from the state of Massachusetts and the Vice Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. Although he would not be elected President for another four years, he was listening.
This would be the pivotal moment for John F. Kenney and for America. What America needed was strength and courage. Mostly, however, it needed a charismatic leader who could give them hope when none was warranted.
Stephen R. Covey author of several seminal works on the nature of leadership said, "Through years of study, teaching and working with people all over the world, from all walks of life, I have determined that leadership is: Communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves. It is the influence we have with others to help them discover their own voice, to find their own purpose, to make their unique contribution, and to release their potential, that truly defines leadership." (Khan, 2005). This was echoed more than a century previous by Benjamin Disraeli, the renowned nineteenth century British statesman and Prime Minister who said, "The greatest good you can do for another is not to share your riches but to reveal to him his own."