Ted Kennedy's Leadership Lessons

Posted on The Change Master: August 28, 2009 10:45 AM

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose loss America is mourning, was no darling of the traditional big business community. He fought for the little guy, for children, for the poor and disadvantaged, sometimes against establishments and elites.

But as a leader, he was greatly admired across the political spectrum. Even those who disagreed with his politics can draw inspiration from his life. From knowing and observing him, I choose four leadership lessons I hope executives will take to heart.

Remember that performance is everything. No one is entitled to a position. When Ted Kennedy won his Senate seat for the first time during the Presidency of his brother, Jack Kennedy, critics said that he inherited his position in the family business and bought his way into the Senate through favoritism. Critics dismissed him as a weak younger brother who would be merely a celebrity Senator. How wrong they were. Ted Kennedy's route to the Senate stopped mattering once he began performing for his constituents and collaborating with his colleagues.

Kennedy did not rely on dynasty as destiny. He rolled up his sleeves and mastered the details, and he kept studying and learning as the issues changed. No one is entitled to a top executive position; everyone has to earn it through his or her deeds, and each is only as good as his or her command of the issues. When Mitt Romney challenged Kennedy for his Senate seat in 1994, the pivotal moment of their debate—which probably won Kennedy re-election—involved Kennedy pressing Romney for specifics on his health care plan, with Romney finally admitting he hadn't worked out all the details. "Well that's what you have to do with legislation," the Senator replied. Kennedy knew the job. His career rewards followed from his service. His career rewards followed from his service.

Even when Kennedy could not move the needle forward on really big change (health care reform), he supported incremental improvements (children's health insurance), which meant that he survived in office long enough for his big agenda to come close to being enacted.

Find a higher purpose. Think values first, and suspend ego.Ted Kennedy believed in public service as an honorable profession and in government as a vehicle for helping all citizens get their chance for high quality of life. Once he found his core mission (after losses and setbacks), it was clear where he stood and who he stood for—other people who needed a voice because they couldn't always speak for themselves.

This was not about Ted Kennedy or his ego. He was known for humility, graciousness, and geniality in the Senate; he was not engaged in partisan contests to win for the sake of winning. The goals were so important that he was willing to work with political opponents to reach agreement on measures that served the people. His work with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch was a model for collaboration that transcended ideological disagreements. He supported President Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation for school reform; the cause of children was so important that he would rather compromise and get a little something done than prevent any action. Negotiating by calling on higher principles made him effective with principled members of the other party. Business leaders who operate from a sense of values and purpose—a theme of my new book SuperCorp—are similarly able to win adherents and negotiate better deals, because they suspend ego in support of a cause larger than themselves. By working for others rather than scrambling for career advantage, they enhance their own reputations. And the work is more important than title or position. Ted Kennedy will go down in history as the Lion of the Senate and one of the most important figures of our time, although he was not the President, nor even the "CEO" of the Senate or his party. His mission gave him moral power as important as position power.

Keep going. Ted Kennedy faced numerous public crises, any one of which could have destroyed him, yet he proved resilient and able to learn. Through strong efforts on behalf of the greater good, he restored confidence in his leadership. The still-mysterious incident at Chappaquiddick in which a young woman drowned nearly drowned his career, too; far from showing courage, he ducked accountability. But Kennedy bounced back by redoubling his efforts to do his job well. He fumbled in his bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1980, but recovered by devoting even more energy and passion to his work in the Senate.

Never forget family. The hard-working Kennedy was a model for executive dads. De facto father to several touch-football-game's worth of children (his own and those of his late brothers and formidable sisters), he organized weekend outings to Civil War battlefields and made sure they studied their history lessons. Family was at the center of his satisfaction in life. At the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, which I toured with him, he showed pictures of the late President John F. Kennedy and late Attorney General Robert Kennedy and talked of them as if still alive. The consummate professional whose greatness grew every year was still, at heart, a family man. His concern for relationships, and the love that guided his family through numerous tragedies, gave him the strength to take on tough challenges.

Business leaders should heed that lesson above all: Performance, mission, and endurance are possible because the people we support and care about also support us.

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