John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States, and he was the youngest president, elected at the age of forty-three. Due to Kennedy’s lack of corporate experience and young age, he struggled with the ability to plan strategically. The United States was still recovering from the Peal Harbor attacks and current Cold War when Kennedy took office. Americans felt threatened by the possibility of a nuclear war, and President Kennedy needed to be able to create a strategic plan to alleviate these fears. Drath (2001) refers to this as an adaptive challenge. An adaptive challenge is defined as a challenge of which there is no precedent or preexisting resources, thus causing the leader to make a change in his or her leadership style to adapt to the situation and resolve the issue. Adaptive challenges are different from everyday challenges as everyday challenges already have resources available for the leader to use (Drath, 2001). Kennedy, facing an adaptive challenge with strategic planning, was forced to create additional resources and make executive decisions to help Americans feel protected and safe under his leadership.
President Kennedy needed to create credibility with his constituents due to his lack of experience. President Kennedy was elected by a small margin of votes, and Beschloss (2000) points out that America did not know Kennedy well. The president worked hard to make a good impression on the American people once in office. Kennedy was not a large corporate businessman nor had he held an executive cabinet role. When Kennedy spoke in public or at televised events he would remain stiff and formal in order to portray an older, serious, and more experienced president (Beschloss, 2000). President Kennedy wanted to do well as president, and he knew he needed the support of the American public. He did not want them to question his abilities or decisions due to his age.
As many presidents do, Kennedy had goals for his presidential term. He wanted to land a man on the moon, and he also wanted to create a nuclear test ban treaty. Beschloss (2000) states that Kennedy’s leadership method was not a grand vision, but rather “crisis management, hour to hour” (p.67). While Kennedy’s presidency ended prematurely with his assassination, one can see growth in leadership from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis (Benchless, 2000). His catastrophe with the Bay of Pigs embarrassed Americans, but his extensive strategic planning with the Cuban Missile Crisis showed Americans that President Kennedy was overcoming his adaptive challenge of using his resources wisely and learning to plan strategically.
Example One: The Bay of Pigs
Kennedy was constantly concerned about his reputation as president, however, there were many who were excited for the change of having a Democratic leader in the White House after eight years of Republican terms (Raven, 1998). His Executive Committee, eager to make their mark in history, presented the president with a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro, leader of Cuba, using CIA trained Cuban exiles. This was a covert mission that excluded the American military. President Kennedy attended several meetings with his Executive Committee to learn about the plan before he agreed to the mission (Kramer, 1998). Raven (1998) notes that with the high enthusiasm from his Executive Committee, groupthink began to take over and those who dissented the plan were overlooked and forced to change opinions. The notion of groupthink, making poor decisions to keep group cohesiveness, is seen as one of the reasons Kennedy lacked the strategic plan to execute the Bay of Pigs effectively (Raven, 1998).
The Bay of Pigs is described as one of the most disastrous events in American history as the plan failed miserably (Raven, 1998). The Bay of Pigs invasion was not successful. Castro’s army defeated the CIA trained Cuban exiles, and the entire nation was then made aware of the failed attempt. Americans were embarrassed, and leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev began to think of Kennedy as weak (Landers, 2012). Kramer (1998) states that although the group had one opinion, in the end it was President Kennedy who made the decision to execute the plan for the Bay of Pigs. Although Kennedy had expressed some opposition to the plan, he still moved forward with it because he was concerned about the poor political backlash of not acting on the plan at all. His intense focus on the political implications of his career prevented him from creating a strategic plan for the Bay of Pigs (Kramer, 1998). Kennedy was criticized for acting too hastily early in his presidential term and not using his advisors to the full extent or utilizing resources outside of the Executive Committee to seek alternatives (Grattan, 2004). Documents state that there were several members of the Executive Committee who did have concerns, but President Kennedy did not create an environment in his meetings that allowed for these members to speak up and voice their opposition (Kramer, 1998).
In a hope to regain confidence from the American public, Kennedy put additional resources into his man on the moon plan (Beschloss, 2000). His decision to move forward with the Bay of Pigs had been largely to protect his political reputation, but the plan backfired and did the opposite. In addition to questioning the president, Americans were concerned about how his Executive Committee presented and advised him on a morally disastrous plan with poor execution. His Executive Committee had previously been thought of as one of the best-educated and well-prepared committees, but the Bay of Pigs brought a negative stigma to this group (Kramer, 1998).
Example Two: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Kennedy’s executive leadership was put to the test again when he learned that the Soviets had placed missiles in Cuba. He knew Americans were still in doubt of his abilities due to his poor handling of the Bay of Pigs. America had never faced a situation like this, so he was unable to look to past resources and learn from previous presidents about how to proceed. He opted not to tell the American public about the situation in order to give himself more time to devise a plan. Kennedy understood the urgency of the matter, but he could not allow another catastrophe like the Bay of Pigs (Gratton, 2004). President Kennedy chose his own team of advisors to work on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which included his brother and confidant, Robert Kennedy (Beschloss, 2000). He took time to listen to all of his advisors and asked questions. He remained non-assertive as he challenged his advisors to think about the situation before giving solutions. He led the committee using a Socratic method. His advising team had extreme views on the correct path of action, but President Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs that an extreme measure might not be the best option. Everyone agreed that the missiles needed to be removed, but the decision of how to make this happen was more complex (Gratton, 2004).
Kennedy not only needed to make a decision on how to handle the missiles, he also needed to establish a plan on how to communicate his decision to the world. Kennedy made a televised announcement to America. This announcement was also sent to the Soviet Nikita Khrushchev in a letter. Even without a corporate background and a botched plan with the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy remained confident in his speech as he communicated his decision. His confidence was comforting, but the reality of a potential nuclear war frightened Americans (Landers, 2012) Kennedy decided to put a blockade around Cuba until the missiles were removed. If the missiles were not removed, he threated further military action against the Soviet Union. Kennedy listened to his advisors, but he was able to keep his eye on the goal of removing the weapons. He was not sidetracked by other agendas, such as overthrowing Castro. Kennedy did not pick an extreme measure. He selected the option that worked to resolve the crisis and keep Americans safe (Gratton, 2004). Kennedy created several plans of action based on each potential response of the Soviets. These plans did not indicate a lack of confidence, but rather they indicated his desire to be well prepared. He did not want to have another situation like the Bay of Pigs (Landers, 2012).
The Soviets removed their missiles, but the waiting time between the announcement of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the removal of the missiles seemed long for freighted Americans. During this time Congressional staff urged Kennedy to take stronger action, such as invading Cuba (Landers, 2012). Kennedy took a risk and stayed to his word. He understood that World War Three was in the looms (Beschloss, 2000). Landers (2012) describes Kennedy as working well under pressure by using his intelligence and tough façade to remain calm. The president showed restraint by not listening to extreme military measures that could have had prolonged effects, and he did so while presenting a confident appearance (Landers, 2012). Unlike the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was able to use his resources wisely and adapt to the situation. His reputation as an effective leader grew after the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Gratton, 2004).
President Kennedy was a young president who faced an adaptive challenge of strategic planning based on his lack of experience. Kennedy was determined not to have his age give Americans a negative impression of his abilities as president. However, the failed mission with the Bay of Pigs brought much skepticism. Kennedy was able to learn from his mistakes, and he showed tremendous growth in his leadership and strategic planning during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy’s ability to overcome his adaptive challenge and utilize his calm, confident and persistent leadership style avoided a nuclear war for the United States.
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