Leadership / Management

50 years later, JFK still inspires us

I flew into D.C. for the AICPA’s annual Digital CPA Conference, checked into the hotel early, and found myself with the better part of an afternoon to kill. Work piles up when I’m on the road, and I probably should have just hunkered down in my room and punched the clock.

But the sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination was three days away. So instead, I hailed a cab and headed to Arlington National Cemetery. Less than 30 minutes later, I stood in front of the eternal flame that marks JFK’s gravesite.

Like most of the tourists there, I paid my respects, snapped a few photos, and felt utterly dwarfed by the enormity of the man and the crime in Dallas. Eventually, I moved on.

A few steps away, in front of Robert Kennedy’s grave, a stranger approached.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m a photographer with the Bergen Record in New Jersey. I took a few photos of you at JFK’s gravesite, and I was hoping I could get your name.”

“You bet,” I said, and gave it to him. That simple request then moved on to a more formal interview. He wanted to know where I was from, why I had come, what it was like to be there for the first time — all of the standard softball questions reporters are required to ask for commemorative articles like his.

Then he asked, “Why do you think we Americans remain so fascinated with JFK today?”

I hadn’t really thought about it before. For me, it boils down to Kennedy’s unfulfilled potential and how we love to speculate about how the world might be different had he lived. I told the photographer these things, then we shook hands and parted ways.

In the days since that interview, I think I missed something important about that last question. The key to our fascination with JFK, I now believe, is not the way we feel about him — it’s the way he made us feel about ourselves.

One of a leader’s most important jobs, says leadership expert Emmanuel Gobillot, is to make their people feel stronger and more capable — in a word, to inspire them.

Isn’t that what JFK did for Americans of his day? Isn’t he still doing that for Americans today? We can argue about the effectiveness of his presidency — we do that all time. In the end, though, much of what people remember about JFK is how he made them feel.

He made them feel stronger and more capable. He helped them dream big. He inspired them.

More than Oswald or Dallas or conspiracy, let that be his legacy.


Bill Sheridan