As a sickly child and young adult, President John F. Kennedy spent many solitary hours with books. The breadth of his reading history and politics, literature, science, travel, and biography served as one source of his eloquence, whether in prepared speeches or presented spontaneously. His press conferences became the stuff of conversation pieces in Washington. The press corps was riveted as much on Kennedy’s oratory as on his responses to questions. Here was a master communicator thoroughly enjoying his own press conferences.
Winston Churchill’s strongest quality as a leader was his ability to inspire others, despite the ominous circumstances Britain was facing during his tenure as Prime Minister. The source of this ability lay in his own character—and of course his ability to find the right words to fit the country’s mood. On the eve of World War II in 1940, Churchill declared before the House of Commons: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Labor MP Josiah Wedgwood promptly responded: “That was worth 1,000 guns, and the speeches of 1,000 years.”
In April 1963, when President Kennedy made Churchill an Honorary Citizen of the United States—Churchill’s mother was an American—the President offered this word of praise: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Sense of Humor
Strong leaders have a developed sense of humor that may enhance their Office. “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it,” declared the President in the spring of 1961 on their visit to France.
Acerbic wit was never far from President Lincoln’s lips or from Winston Churchill’s. In a letter to his good friend, Joshua F. Speed, Lincoln wrote, “When the Know-Nothings get control, it [the Declaration of Independence] will read: 'All men are created equal except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” Regarding his pro-slavery opponents Lincoln declared, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”
One evening as a tired and wobbly Churchill was leaving the House of Commons, the Labor MP Bessie Braddock accused him of being disgustingly drunk.” He replied: “Bessie, my dear, . . . you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober, and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”
Leaders have vision, a quality that conceives of an idea or sees a picture into the future before others can visualize it. St. Ignatius of Loyola chose and trained leaders who would be affable, attractive, and persuasive messengers of his vision and not those who were rich or powerful.
In Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “You dream dreams and say “Why?” But I dream dreams that never were and say “Why not?” His words were paraphrased by Robert F. Kennedy in his 1968 campaign for the presidential nomination. Transformative leaders can rouse a nation to action when their goals are persuasive. They articulate a shared raison d’être in words such as the Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. orated in his “I have a dream” speech.” He asked men and women to dream today and tomorrow of a better America.
In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy put his vision this way: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” He simplified this vision in the motto: “The New Frontier.” This phrase encompassed pursuits in science and the arts, foreign affairs, race and inequality. He invited the country to become pioneers on this noble quest. Soon the Peace Corps appealed to the generosity and self-sacrifice of American youth to serve all over the world.
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It is no small thing for leaders to touch our hearts and minds by appealing to “the better angels of our nature,” a phrase of Charles Dickens which Lincoln quoted in his First Inaugural Address.
Leaders make decisions throughout the course of a day or over a longer period of time. Some decisions are so consequential they can change the public image of an organization. Such was the case with a decision taken at Vatican II regarding the fate of Gregorian chant. At the close of the Council, it was hastily whisked away from parish Masses in North America, though it was kept alive in a few monasteries. Popular songs, accompanied by thumping guitars and percussive bongo drums, hastily replaced it. Latin gave way to the vernacular.
The pros and cons cannot be debated here, but music scholars were shocked at the sudden change. Gustav Reese, a noted expert on Gregorian chant, could barely contain himself at the hierarchy’s decision. In a passionate cry, he exclaimed: ‘What have you done to the chant!’
To avoid open criticism of the Church, other scholars described the drastic changes in neutral and measured language as the most dramatic and consequential of all the changes made at Vatican II. Internal struggle was marked by “defiance versus intractability.” This struggle “has sapped the church of its vitality not to mention the effect it continues to have on matters that are “aesthetic, political, sociological, or even purely technical.”
In times of crisis how do leaders make decisions? Some leaders make decisions without consultation, while others call for collegiality. Collegial leaders point the way forward to advance the purpose of the organization. Still, the personality of the leader plays an important role in this model. Whereas strong leaders get the best and brightest to execute their vision by delegating responsibility, weak leaders fear initiative and creativity from their workers. They lack trust in the abilities of others.