Forty years ago this month, an assassin put a bullet in the president’s head.
I was 10 years old on that November day in 1963, quietly sitting in a classroom at St. Michael’s Grammar School in Paterson, New Jersey. The nun delivered the awful news in tears. We silently prayed together, and then we were dismissed in the early afternoon.
The memory of a 10-year-old does not play back in scenes or dialogue. It emerges in a simple, vivid picture that sticks in the mind. And what I most remember occurred neither in a classroom nor on a television screen but on my walk home. Grief was everywhere. On the block where I lived, I remember seeing a young woman hunched over in pain, weeping hysterically. “Oh my God!” she said, over and over again. “They killed him!” That is my lasting image.
My world, our world, was shaken to its very core that day. John F. Kennedy had not only become the youngest man elected president but the youngest president to die. For me and for many of my generation, JFK was one of the great 20th-century leaders and, more important, our first leadership role model.
He had the leadership thing down pat. Jack possessed the vision, the passion, and the integrity to marshal a nation’s support for his outsize dreams: to provide equal rights for all Americans, to create a Peace Corps to help the world’s disadvantaged, to treat the elderly with dignity and respect, to put a man on the moon, and on and on.
So you can understand that I jumped at the chance to sleep in the bed where Jack once snoozed (you can read more about that experience in “JFK Slept Here,” page 123). Maybe, I thought privately, some of the “right stuff” would rub off on me. I had just signed on as editor of Fast Company, and I saw the job as a way to practice all that I have written and learned about leadership over my 20-plus years as a business journalist.
Unfortunately for me, there was no such magic in the old Kennedy compound in Palm Beach. But my visit to the president’s former bedroom started me on another journey–it reawakened my study of Kennedy’s leadership abilities and an awareness of what all of us can learn from him.
Kennedy didn’t merely assume his leadership. He prepared for it. Throughout his life, he read history and studied the ideas and habits of great leaders. Profiles in Courage was less a book than a leadership thesis, an effort to immerse himself in the attributes of successful people. He wrote about leaders who put their careers at risk to fight for the things they truly believed. His conclusion: Kennedy came to understand that courage, the willingness to speak truth to power, the need to stand up for one’s deeply held beliefs, was far more important than power itself.
Clearly, he made mistakes. But the only infallible leaders are those whose reach is so limited they never seem to fail at all. In truth, they fail miserably through lack of ambition. No one can say that about John F. Kennedy. He was a man of his own invention. He surrounded himself with the best and the brightest. He drew out the very finest qualities in the people he led. He espoused a clear vision for a better nation and a better world. And that is why, 40 years after his death, so many inevitably ask and wonder, “What if he had lived?”
In the spring of this year, Jack’s old aide and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen stood behind a podium at American University and recalled what it was like to serve Kennedy, just as I thought back on the first man I ever recognized as a leader worth emulating. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” Sorensen said with a nod to Wordsworth, “but to be young, and to be in service to that president, was very heaven!”