How to Lead Like JFK: Sometimes, You Need to Start a Debate

October 23, 2017

John F. Kennedy (JFK)'s leadership style was to intentionally challenge his subordinates to create a culture of candor and innovation.

Despite his term being cut tragically short in Dallas in 1963, John F. Kennedy was perhaps the most iconic American president of the 20th century. A gifted speaker with unassailable charisma, in 1960 he charmed the nation on his way to becoming the youngest man ever elected president.

Another thing about Kennedy? Over the years, thanks in part to some high-profile failures, he mastered the art of leadership. Never was that on more display than the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, where he successfully managed to avoid what appeared to be inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet Union, without weakening America’s world standing one iota (in fact, he strengthened it).

So, what was his secret to leading? And how can you apply it to your professional life?

Kennedy welcomed debate. In fact, sometimes he’d intentionally create debate among his team, forcing them to question their long-held assumptions and challenging them to think innovatively. It also created an environment where his team could speak frankly with each other and to the president himself.

“Kennedy learned that in order to succeed, he must create a culture of candor among his inner circle, that he needed the confidence to hear their truths, and his team in turn the courage and freedom to speak those truths,” Warren Bennis, Kennedy’s biographer, wrote in an article on CNN. “This remains today a lesson that far too few presidents – or CEOs – since Kennedy have embraced.”

And while you likely aren’t the president of the United States, it doesn’t mean you can’t use this exact some principle within your team. By intentionally creating debate and forcing people to challenge their thinking, you’ll create a more innovative culture.

“As a leader, you have to help the team overcome the socially learned desire to not engage tense but needed discussion,” LinkedIn Learning Instructor Todd Dewett said in his LinkedIn Learning series, Management Tips Weekly.

How to encourage constructive debate among your team

It’s easy to create unconstructive debate in your team, where people are sniping at each other and things soon turn toxic. But the key is fostering an environment where constructive debate exists within your team.

In a lesson dedicated exactly to that issue, Dewett laid out how to accomplish precisely that. He said the best way to create constructive debate among your team is to follow these three principles:

    1. Be proactive – and accountable – when starting a debate.

Generally, the most important debates to have are the ones on subjects many of your team members will regard as taboo. Therefore, it’s important for you – as the leader – to bring up that taboo subject and start the debate, as that’ll signal to others it’s okay to talk about, Dewett said.

The alternative? In most cases, if one of your employees brings up a “taboo” subject to debate about, its likely been a problem festering for some time.

Additionally, you need to be accountable. If a project you led failed, you need to acknowledge that failure to engage in meaningful debate. This will make it easier for your team members to acknowledge their failures as well, and ultimately get to a place where you can improve the process next time.

    2. Make it safe for others to speak up.

Encouraging a debate on a taboo subject is sort of like encouraging a group of people to jump into a swimming pool. Most of the time, they’ll dip their toe into the water before jumping in.

To ensure that proverbial jump in happens, you need to encourage people when they stick their toe into the water. That means poking fun of yourself when talking about a controversial subject and actively listening when others bring up their points of view, Dewett said.

Also, if they say something that seems a bit vague, ask them to elaborate. Prove to them it’s a safe place by encouraging them to speak and then listening when they do.

    3. Proactively encourage inclusion.

Sometimes, a debate will be nothing more than a couple of outspoken people on your team sounding off. While it’s great they are contributing, you want to get a full picture from your entire team.

You can do this by proactively encouraging inclusion. This is relatively simple – if someone hasn't said anything yet, ask them what their take is, Dewett said. And again, actively listen while they give their answer, thereby encouraging them to speak up again.

“Do a little poking and prodding when the team needs to debate,” Dewett said. “Here's the good news, in time it actually becomes normal so you get the debate you need without any tension.”

The takeaway

A leader’s job is not to ensure that everyone on the team agrees with each other all the time. Instead, a leader’s job is to bring out the best of their people, which occasionally means making their team uncomfortable.

Granted, you don’t want to overdo it and create a culture where people don’t feel like they can be themselves. But you do want constructive debate among your team, as it’s essential for innovation.

And following Dewett’s tips can help accomplish that.

Want to learn more? Watch Todd Dewett's course, Management Tips Weekly.