Obama and Kennedy: A Tale of Two Leaders

School leaders, especially independent school types, can sometimes talk about teaching leadership in ways that make the process sound thoroughly scientific. It’s as if a measured approach to developing vision, time management and communication skills will lead ineluctably to success. But there is something in the nature of leadership that doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis.

Chris Matthews, author of “Jack Kennedy,” was on “Meet the Press” this morning, and he offered an interesting comparison of JFK’s leadership style with that of President Obama’s.

According to Matthews, JFK was focused on relationships. “He had troops under him as a navy commander, and when his ship was torpedoed, he risked his life to protect his men. They then went on to do everything they could to support him for the rest of their lives.”

Kennedy was able to forge similar relationships with politicians and key thought leaders, and it was those relationships that gained him the presidency.

By contrast, again according to Matthews, President Obama is a “transactional” leader. He doesn’t actually enjoy the company of politicians, and as a result, he doesn’t bond easily with them. Like any political leader, he dispenses favours, punishes opponents, and rewards friends, but think about this:

“He appointed John Huntsman ambassador to the most important country in the world (China), and he turns around and runs for president against him. What does that say?”


2 thoughts on “Obama and Kennedy: A Tale of Two Leaders

  1. I think you are right, Ian. There are a great variety of differences at play here, and whenever anyone is compared to JFK, at least in the USA, he usually gets the short end of the stick.

    JFK is just a black and white memory for me, so I can’t offer any insights on his leadership, but Matthews’ comment about President Obama’s “transactional” style resonates; he comes across as a cool, calm, and dispassionate pragmatist.

  2. Leadership also comes out in the context and circumstances of the leadership experience.

    Obama is the first black president. Kennedy was from a upper class American political family. Kennedy managed the missile crisis. Obama dealt with two wars,plus domestic and international economic misery. creating insecurity and mistrust of all politicians.. Kennedy was a good domestic policy president and Obama fell into the black hole of healthcare reform. Kennedy laid the foundation to end racial discrimination in the US and championed the development of technology to put a man on the moon Obama wants to tax the rich and require uninsured Americans to buy health insurance which appears to be a sop to the powerful insurance lobby. Obama wanted a big piece of history; Kennedy was born to public service. Different context,different circumstances simple leadership style labeling is of questionable validity..

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