JFK and the myth of the heroic leader

JFK and the myth of the heroic leader

In “The Great Convener”, an opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times on June 27, columnist David Brooks analyzes the leadership style of US President Barack Obama.  While it is not my desire (nor my forte) to do political commentary, Brooks makes two interesting points that I would like to highlight and comment on.

The first point is about the leader as hero:  In my public speaking, one of the most requested and popular topics, and one that I have delivered to a wide variety of audiences, is the “myths and realities of leadership.”   In my presentations, I discuss some of most prevalent misconceptions in our society about what leadership is.  Often, I begin with society’s erroneous notion that leaders are, or are expected to be, heroes.

Based on my years of experience, research and interviews with highly effective leaders, I have found that most leadership does not begin with heroism, and that it does not contain anything particularly superhuman.   Rather, leadership is usually the result of ordinary human beings deciding to take a stand on the things that truly matters to them.

To me, the fact that we see leaders as heroes has a damaging impact in society, as it discourages numerous individuals, who may not see themselves as extraordinary, from discovering and developing their true leadership potential.  Rather than try to influence their world with their ideas and actions, many people will not take a stand, often out of fear that they are not “heroic” enough to lead among their peers, or in their communities.

At a more macro level, our tendency and our desire to turn public personalities into heroes only accentuates our disappointment when our elected officials turn out to be merely human.

Anyway, let’s turn back to the Brooks article.  I was intrigued by the writer’s perspective on the 1961 Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy, which is widely recognized as one of the most masterful speeches in American history.  In the view of Brooks, Kennedy’s rhetorical prowess did great damage to his country, since this address created the image of the president as an elevated, herculean leader who “issues clarion calls in the manner of Henry V at Agincourt.”  Ever since the Kennedy speech, Brooks argues, American presidents have felt the need to fit a grandiose and unrealistic image of what the nation’s leader should be.

Perhaps the American nation created a romanticized image of Kennedy; the people came to idealize and even idolize their young, dynamic leader who inspired with his words.  For Brooks, the Kennedy inaugural did a disservice to America, as a succession of presidents who followed have done “enormous damage to themselves and the nation” by trying to play the role of President-Hero.  In addition, the Kennedy speech gave a generation of voters an “immature vision of the power of the presidency.”

I always enjoy reading pieces like this one, as they take my own reflection in new directions.  And, I mostly agree with Brooks’ point of view that the heroic discourse of JFK may have done damage to the nation by presenting an unrealizable ideal of what a president can or should be.

At the same time, I would not put the blame too heavily on the leader or the rhetoric.  After all, is not one of the leader’s most crucial roles to provide vision and inspiration to followers?  Leaders help us dream; they allow us to see possibilities that we would not have seen on our own.

Should we place the blame more squarely on ourselves for creating a society that seems to have a deep need turn our leaders into heroes, a tendency that seems increasingly prevalent as time goes on? I think we would do well to understand that the image of “leader as hero” is a societal myth, one that does damage when it discourages any of us from standing for what we believe, preventing us from becoming the leaders we can become.

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