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John F Kennedy: New Frontiers

 “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” 

John F. Kennedy was President of the United States from January, 1961 to November 22nd, 1963, the date of his assassination. His term in office was tragically cut short but JFK remains one of America’s best-loved presidents in opinion polls to this day, and his iconic speeches are remembered around the world. He was the youngest man to be elected president, and the youngest to die as president, but what did he mean when he said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future”?

Captain Kennedy

During World War II, JFK was an officer in the U.S. Navy and captain of PT-109. While on night patrol in the South Pacific, PT-109 was hit and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, leaving JFK and his surviving crew stranded in the water. His leadership qualities immediately shone through as he calmly gathered his men to ask for their view on whether to fight on or surrender, saying: “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” The decision to fight on was made and JFK led his crew on a three-mile swim to the nearest island – towing an injured crewman with him, gripping the man’s lifejacket strap in his teeth all the way.

JFK’s heroic actions led to him being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. He also received the Purple Heart Medal for the injuries he sustained after the incident aggravated an on-going lower back condition that would eventually see him honorably discharged and retired from the Navy.

President Kennedy

In 1961, just a matter of months into his presidency, a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was a disaster for JFK. However, he took responsibility and said, “We got a big kick in the leg and we deserved it. But maybe we’ll learn something from it.” And learn he did. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis left the world teetering on the verge of nuclear war, and JFK’s leadership qualities once again shone through. Just as there had been “nothing in the book” about the situation he faced as captain of PT-109, no administration had faced the situation he now had in front of him.

JFK was given conflicting advice by his top men, most advising they should strike quickly before the Soviet missiles became fully operational. However, with the lessons learned from the Bay of Pigs, JFK held back, knowing that taking aggressive action could result in all-out nuclear war. Instead, he stayed calm, gathered information, questioned everything, and considered every option. After 13 days, an agreement was reached and the world breathed a sigh of relief as the Soviet missiles were withdrawn from Cuba.

Crisis Manager

When JFK said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future,” he demonstrated his understanding that unprecedented things can and will happen, and while lessons can be learned from looking back, moving forward may depend on looking to the future and doing something that has never been done before.

As captain of PT-109, there was nothing in the book to guide his decisions when the boat was sunk. He stayed calm and refused to allow the pressure of the situation to drive his actions. As president, there was nothing in the book to guide his decisions in the midst of a nuclear crisis, but he stayed calm under pressure and considered every option, refusing to repeat the mistakes of his past. As one of history’s greatest crisis managers, he realized that facing an unprecedented situation may require taking unprecedented action – he looked beyond the past and the present to be certain he would not “miss the future”.

You may not be facing a nuclear crisis, but things change in business and you may find yourself facing a situation you’ve never faced before. If you want to lead like JFK, remember his words of wisdom: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”