So much has been written about JFK that, seemingly, nothing more need be said. Yet, as I watched the tributes to his life on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I was struck by how eloquent a speaker he was; how powerful his rhetoric; how much what he said changed behaviors, beliefs and even the trajectory of a country.
Too, there was an elegance to his words. A deliciousness to his rhetoric. You wanted to devour what was currently coming out of his mouth with the same energy and vigor that you invested in anticipating his next utterance.
I wasn’t alive when he was president, but I wish I was — just to hear him speak, let alone to personally experience all the positive change he brought to this still great nation. What I can do, though, is be grateful for what he left us and choose to appreciate his particular brand of leadership — so much of which was driven by the words he used.
For those words mattered because they often didn’t just say what his plans were; rather, they also communicated why it mattered — and at a personal level. Just listen to these utterances:
I look forward to a great future for America. A future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint; its wealth with our wisdom; its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And, we are all mortal.
How powerful. How simple. How elegantly moving.
Clearly, actions need to back up what’s said, but words strung together like that make one (and the collective whole of a nation) really think about their place in life, their role as citizens, the future. They change behavior. They empower.
“We stand today on the edge of the new frontier. I’m asking each of you to be pioneers to that new frontier. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And, so, my fellow Americans…”
As you may have picked up, these particular words are the ones that lead up to the now-iconic “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do …” Yet, even though the “ask not” utterance is the one most oft quoted, look at how brilliant the words preceding it were. Equally inspiring, these.
But why was JFK himself so inspiring? Was it just a simpler time that enabled these words, these actions, this kind of focus and leadership? I think not. Rather, it was the principled-based brand of communicating he used that tapped the emotion of Americans at a very raw, personal level. And it’s only in reaching the emotion, the belief system of others, that real change happens.
All because of words.
After listening to all of these 50th anniversary tributes did a common thread emerge in JFK’s speeches — one that Simon Sinek talks about (and has devoted his life’s work to). It’s the whole “Start With Why” dynamic of communicating that shows “If you communicate what you believe, you will attract those who also believe what you believe.”
JFK could’ve conducted a master class in this style of rhetoric. For he did, in fact, communicate his beliefs. And, as a result, he attracted so many of those who believed what he believed by communicating his “why” so clearly.
Want more proof? Just absorb this next gem:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one that we aren’t willing to postpone, and one that we intend to win.
Just hearing this makes you believe it, right? You almost physically experience those words tapping a gut-check response. It just feels right, right? JFK was able to communicate time and again why our nation existed, why it got out of bed in the morning, what its cause was and why anyone should care. He started with why.
Communicatively, that’s immensely powerful. People didn’t believe JFK for JFK’s sake. Rather, they believed in JFK for their own sake — for why it mattered to them. They believed in him not because they had to, but because they wanted to. That’s what principled-driven, why-based rhetoric (backed by action and integrity, of course) does. It produces real leaders.
Starting with “why,” as JFK so often did, is a masterful communication style — yet, when broken down — a very simple one to understand and implement, too. More to the point, it’s just refreshing to be engaged rhetorically in such a positive way, especially from a politician.
If any doubt remains, contrast JFK’s inspiring communicative style with the vitriol and hate-filled speech that today gets branded as “political discourse.” All this with politicians interjecting some unbelievable 20-point plan in betwixt hurling one negative slurry after another at their opponents and down our collective throats.
So off-putting. So not visionary. So short-sighted and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, lowest-information voter.
Not with JFK, though. And not with others who’ve led so effectively through their words — including Lincoln, King, Reagan and Jobs. These people led countries, movements and global organizations in large part because their rhetoric communicated a belief, a cause. It started with “why.”
- “… not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
- “… an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.”
- “Ask not …”
Words inspire. Words define those who lead. Words matter.
And, just like JFK, I, too, look forward to a great future for America — a future driven by another leader like Kennedy who’ll use words in such an effective way to change so much for so many.
I hope we find it.