As that of any successful leader, Kennedy's leadership style is a complex combination of different qualities and characteristics. This paper will analyze several of them, as well as the leadership profile overall, with the purpose of understanding what made Kennedy an effective leader and whether this was indeed the case.
Hald-Mortensen (2007) looks at three different areas where Kennedy excelled and that contributed to making Kennedy an effective leader: vision, decision making and delegation. He points out, first of all, that Kennedy had vision, something essential for an effective leader. In practical terms, vision meant that he knew where the U.S. should end up in the future and molded his policy accordingly.
One such example of a clear vision for Kennedy was the space program and the Moon Project. The space program involved not only the vision that competition for the outer space would be the next area of dispute with the Soviet Union, but also that the space program would eventually allow the American government to prove its superiority to the rest of the world, as an effective public diplomacy instrument.
Another example of visionary leadership was the idea of a peaceful coexistence with the Soviets, particularly since this occurred after an event such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The resulting "Test Ban Treaty" speech at the American University underscored the most important elements of a policy that would be aimed not towards confrontation, but towards cooperation, and one where the U.S. could develop the economic, social and democracy tools that eventually brought down the Soviet Union.
The decision making style that Kennedy employed throughout his presidency is versatile. He starts with a loose coordination of the agencies, but, after the Bay of Pigs, he moves to a model where they are more closely coordinated and reigned in when necessary. He brings trusted advisers, including his brother, Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he adopts a collegial model of decision making, where he looked to ideas from all members of the Executive Committee that was tasked with making decisions.
One essential leadership quality that shows itself during the Cuban Missile Crisis is his capacity to accept and even implement other people's opinions. In this particular case, his preferred option was an airstrike against the Soviet missiles in Cuba. However, most of his advisers pointed out that a blockade of the island would be a better strategic choice, since it would leave the ball in the Soviet court. It eventually proved the right decisions, but the fact that Kennedy accepted it showed trust in his team and confidence in himself, something a strong leader would have (the capacity to accept a different opinion).
The reverse is also true and it also shows him as a capable and effective leader. He knows when advisers need to be challenged, questions so that the commander in chief can have a more comprehensive image of things. Sabato (2013) mentions that this was essential during the Berlin crisis, when defense analysts proposed a rational nuclear war, but had no clear scenario to Kennedy's pointed questions. The leadership style showed that Kennedy would not be shy of saying no and of shelving proposals from top advisers if these made no sense for him.
Finally, delegation is another essential component of his leadership style. Delegation means choosing the right people, placing them in the appropriate positions and allowing them to act and intervene accordingly. Barnes (2005) mentioned that he looked to recruiting "people whose ideas were actionable" and this was a great step forward, because it meant he was searching quite often beyond the regular pool of potential employees (administration, think-tanks) and towards the academic world.
It is interesting to note that his recruitment strategy also aimed to identifying and placing in positions individuals who would fulfill a certain role. The role of the Secretary of State Dean Rusk, for example, was to allow President Kennedy to have a significant role in U.S. foreign policy, something that other choices for Secretary of State would not have permitted. With Robert McNamara, it was a choice for expertise and for him being outside the military area.
One important characteristic of effective leadership, applicable in Kennedy's case, is ability to change, including the ability to implement…