10 Rules For Great Leadership from Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, Taken From WHEN LIONS ROAR
Ten Rules For Great Leadership from Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy.
Thomas Maier is the author of the newly-published When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys (Crown).
In studying the careers of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American president John F. Kennedy -- two towering figures of the 20th century -- I found many leadership qualities that could be described as “great”. Sometimes those leadership traits are obvious. For example, when Rose Kennedy, JFK’s mother, first met Winston Churchill in the 1930s, she described him in her diary as “one of the great men of the generation.” But sometimes that path to leadership is more subtle or innate. In his own writings about leadership, Winston soberly declared “the price of greatness is responsibility.”
In looking at the careers of JFK and Churchill, here are some guidelines for developing great leadership that you may consider in your own life:
1. Exceed expectations. John F. Kennedy’s political career seemed a reaction to his father and family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy’s own failures in the public arena (a story that echoed Winston Churchill’s success following his father’s own shattered political career). In running for Congress in 1946, Jack confided to friends that he felt “my father’s eyes on the back of my neck,” though he remained quietly determined to forge his own path. While expectation would lift John F. Kennedy to the presidency, Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph would find himself crushed by the burden of living in his father’s shadow. For Randolph’s twenty-first birthday in 1932, his father Winston hosted a fabulous coming-of-age London dinner with the theme of “Fathers and Sons.” “I am not afraid to reveal . . . my two main ambitions,” Randolph admitted. “I wish to make an immense fortune and to be Prime Minister.” But Randolph’s plan for greatness would be undermined by his own erratic behavior, a reminder that high early expectations can only be fulfilled through hard work and dedication.
2. Have a sense of history. JFK followed Churchill’s example, reading and writing much about the past and hiring a top historian as one of his White House advisers. Both men were steeped in American and European history, which informed their leadership. “I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place,” Winston jovially told the press in February 1943, when asked about the outcome of World War II. Later at age seventy-four, Churchill looked to his future by coming to terms with the past. “Let us leave hindsight to history—that history which I am now, myself, in the process of writing!” he explained during a 1947 House of Commons debate.
3. Become a hero, show courage. While recuperating in America from his constant illnesses, a young JFK read many of Churchill’s books filled with tales of manly heroics, faraway adventures, and bloody battles. Each journey brought a new story of derring-do and near-death escapades told with Winston’s trademark wit -- including how he escaped as a prisoner during the Boer War and had a bounty put on his head. “Although always prepared for martyrdom, I preferred that it should be postponed,” Churchill explained. Years later, when asked how he became a war hero following the Japanese attack on his PT-109 cruiser in the Pacific, Jack offered a wry but realistic assessment. “It was involuntary,” he said. “They sank my boat.” Both Churchill and Kennedy revered courage. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” JFK began with “This is a book about the most admirable of human virtues—courage.”
4. Sense of roots and lasting legacy. The wrapping of JFK’s legacy in the British myth of Camelot sprang from Jacqueline Kennedy’s memories of her slain husband listening to recordings of the Broadway show based on the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. “I always keep thinking of Camelot—which is overly sentimental—but I know I am right—for one brief shining moment there was Camelot—and it will never be that way again,” she wrote Harold Macmillan in January 1964. When Randolph Churchill gave John F. Kennedy Jr., the fallen president’s son, a collection of Winston’s books -- (as an author, Winston Churchill built his reputation writing large impressive biographies about his father and the Duke of Marlborough, a descendant ancestor and British war hero) -- Jackie framed her response in terms of legacy. “Winston Churchill and Randolph outlived Jack—but maybe Randolph will be the one to draw John to the books that shaped John’s father,” she wrote.
5. Marry well and listen to your spouse’s advice. Spouses in the Kennedy and Churchill political families faced many challenges but also provided great strength for those in the limelight. “Rose Kennedy is an uncanonized saint in a Dior dress,” observed press baron Lord Beaverbrook, Winston’s longtime friend, to JFK’s father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. Clementine Churchill bolstered her husband Winston’s spirits during the most difficult times of his career. “Never forget that when History looks back, your vision & your piercing energy, coupled with your patience & magnanimity, will all be part of your greatness, “ Clemmie reminded him after some discouraging setbacks during World War II. Both women -- and especially JFK’s wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy -- played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in helping to shape these dynasties.
6. Determination to be great can decide destiny and good fortune. Despite their friendly public faces, both Winston Churchill and JFK had iron wills unwilling to accept failure, with an overriding belief in their personal success. “Remember I’ve always said he’s a child of fate, and if he fell in a puddle of mud in a white suit he’d come up ready for a Newport ball,” Joe Kennedy explained to Jackie Kennedy about her husband. “We are all worms,” Winston confided early in his career. “But I do believe that I am a glow worm.” Both family patriarchs would will their names into the history books.
7. Use wit to overcome difficulties on the road to greatness. Young Jack Kennedy admired Churchill’s eloquence and pluck in describing war, the joie de vivre of a man who, after nearly being killed by gunfire, could declare with glee, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Churchill would remain a touchstone in the Kennedys’ lives. In a lighthearted letter to his family, Jack later compared his mother, Rose, jokingly to the British prime minister, referring to one of his famous lines: “Never in history have so many owed so much to such a one—or is that quite correct?” he teased her. “If you would look in that little book of yours under Churchill Winston—I imagine you can check it.” It was that charm that would endear JFK to generations of Americans and the wit that, to this day, Churchill is remembered for.
8. Demand only the best from colleagues. JFK surrounded himself with what would later be called, “The Best and the Brightest,” drawing his advisors from the top minds of American industry and from the most elite schools. But he relied on his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, for the best advice on the most sensitive matters such the Cuban missile crisis. During World War II, Churchill was so grateful to Lord Beaverbrook, he dubbed him “Lord Spitfire” for his extraordinary plane production against the attacking Nazis. Beaverbrook responded with a sense of history that undoubtedly the prime minister appreciated. “You will be talked of even more widely after you are dead than during your lifetime,” Beaverbrook wrote prophetically. “But I am talked of while I live, and save for my association with you, I will be forgotten thereafter.”
9. Be confident but act humbly. Jack Kennedy began his successful 1960 presidential quest after conceding defeat graciously with his longshot bid for the 1956 vice-presidential nomination. His televised concession speech left a good impression. When Churchill received the 1953 Nobel Prize In Literature (rather than Peace), he dispatched his wife Clementine to pick up the award, along with a charming message of acceptance. “I do hope you are right,” he informed the Nobel Committee about the merits of its decision. “I feel we are both running a considerable risk and that I do not deserve it. But I shall have no misgivings if you have none.”
10. Recognize “greatness” in your followers and give voice to it. Famously, President Kennedy’s stirring 1960 inaugural speech—an idealistic plea for all Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your county”—reverberated with Churchill’s cadences. For inspiration, Kennedy had listened to recordings of Churchill during World War II. “It was the nation and the race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion’s heart,” Churchill later wrote of the British people during the war. “I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”
In my book “When Lions Roar”, I mentioned the word “leadership” twelve times within the text. But its meaning is best understood for everyone by reflecting upon the words, actions and inspiring careers of these two great men, Winston Churchill and JFK.