Fifty years ago today I was sitting in my third grade class when a teacher came in sobbing.
President Kennedy had been shot and the next few days have been burned into my brain ever since. Strangely, all of those memories are black and white, since that was the kind of television we had at the time. In retrospect, the day and his death ended an era of hope in this country as we moved into an era of conflict and chaos.
Smarter people than I have written about JFK’s impact but I thought it might be appropriate to translate a few of his thoughts into business thinking since that’s what we do here on the screed. As is also our custom, I’m going to avoid the politics of what he had to say as well as what others had to say about him and his administration. First, the most famous quote from his Inaugural Address:
In business terms, this is a recurring theme here. Flip “country” to customer and I think you’ve got a solid paradigm through which you can view almost any business decision. Next, the quote that triggered what might be his most enduring legacy:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
While we can debate the merits of the space program (and I wrote about that a while back), I don’t think there’s much debate about two things. One, that program contributed to the rapid advancement of many of the technologies you’re using at this very moment to read this. Those same technologies are driving a lot of growth in our economy and around the world. Two, and this is the main business point, the imperative to think big thoughts.
No business can succeed by standing still. What’s the next frontier? How can we be better and lead? Kennedy viewed space as a defense project which is clear when you read the address from which the quote is taken. Dreaming big is a great defense, because the odds are your competitors are trying to as well. As the space program has proven, the by-products of big ideas are often more valuable than accomplishing the goal itself.
Finally, Kennedy took office as a 43-year-old, following President Eisenhower who was 71 when he left. He was the first president born in the 20th Century and projected an image of youth and excitement. His language was forceful and filled with imagery of destiny and long-term thinking about solving problems. That’s a great model for anyone who presents ideas which most of us do on a regular basis in business.
What happened 50 years ago today was a tragedy. I wonder sometimes how different this country – and the world – might be had Kennedy served two terms. While his presidency wasn’t without controversy and crisis (if you haven’t seen the movie Thirteen Days, find it and watch it!), it’s his legacy of civil rights, social programs, NASA, and the Peace Corps that stand out in my mind. His approach to leading is a great model despite some of the personal foibles he had, and taking his approach to business issues isn’t bad either. You agree?