Sunday, October 4, 2009

From Chappaquiddick to “Lion” Status: A Journey To Leadership

What was it about Democratic Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy that at his death caused an outpouring of support and devotion from all across the United States Senate? Did they forget the “Chappaquiddick Incident” where Mr. Kennedy left the scene of an accident and a woman drowned? Why did Senators, typically divided by partisan politics, stand in solidarity as his funeral car passed the Capital? What factors led to Mr. Kennedy’s eventual elevated standing as “Lion of the Senate” even though he had a controversial past? In short, Ted Kennedy had become a leader. This blog with its attempt at taking a non-political view will examine some of the leadership theories that may help explain this phenomenon.

Heifitz (1988) stated that a leader is about “mobilizing people to do something…to meet the needs of the community.”(p.22) For 47 working years in the Senate, Ted Kennedy engaged in positive action. Exercising congressional and therefore legitimate power (Hughes, Ginnet, & Curphy, 1993), he was responsible for 300 bills that are current, working laws. Working to meet the needs of many, Kennedy championed the poor and dispossessed to promote social justice issues like civil rights and education, to name a few. His leadership is discernable given his vision and actions aimed at passing universal health care (Choi, 2006) for all Americans. This debate rages on, and Kennedy died before seeing his dream become a reality.

The notion of “participatory leadership” (Geneen, 1998) applies in a positive way in looking at Kennedy’s record. In the September 9, 2009 issue of Newsweek, Evan Thomas says that “Ted…vindicated a more mundane truism: that half (or possibly as much as 90 percent) of success in life is just showing up (p.31). And show up in the Senate he did—for 47 years and with 300 laws to show for it. With active participation, his influence as a leader increased over time.

Kennedy was masterful at dealing with the complexity of the Senate. Dealing with extremely complex organizations is a task of leaders, according to Gardner (1990). Evans (2009) described Kennedy as able to devour huge briefing books and eye-glazing technical data. Given his legislative successes, he may have understood our complex system of law-making better than most.

Perhaps it was Ted Kennedy’s ability to admit his mistakes, a leadership characteristic posed by Geneen (1998) that drew even his former adversaries to him later in life. Kennedy sought redemption for Chappaquiddick by acknowledging his flaws and working to improve the lives of those less fortunate. I think he became a leader in large part by showing up, getting results, and asking for forgiveness. He morphed into his “Lion” status. Ted Kennedy had made a long journey to leadership.

Setting personal political views aside, is it possible to deny Mr. Kennedy’s leader status in the U.S. Senate? While these leadership theories may describe some of the more subtle forms of Kennedy’s leadership, what others do you see at play in his senatorial life?


  1. This is a very interesting post. I personally believe that Kennedy’s flaws helped elevate him as a leader. I think there’s something about people who are strong AND seen as flaws that makes for a very powerful combination
    Again, I’m a big movie person, so I apologize for this strange analogy, but a while back there was a poll regarding favorite and most beloved on screen characters and heroes. The clear winner was Indiana Jones. When this was probed deeper it was revealed that one of the main reasons for this was that Indy, in all of his movies, gets beat up by the bad guys- but still wins in the end. He’s a flawed hero in that he fails repeatedly (almost comically), but fights to come out on top.

    Now in Senator Kennedy’s case this is obviously (and very morally) different, but the paradigm is there- people identify, I think, more with a person or leader who have a flaw or mishap and can bounce back from it. Who among does recognize our own flaws, and wants to think we can learn from it rather than have it define us? I think too about President Cline, like we talked about in class. He’s done an amazing job of not letting this mistakes define him, but rather perhaps using them to work harder.

    I actually think people, as a collective are very quick to judge and call people out when they do something wrong, especially those in the public spotlight. And I think this is justified, as we hold those individuals to high standard given their position, but it is amazing the power and I dare say the opportunity those person have in trying to redeem themselves.

    In general I think people love a hero/leader , but we love a flawed hero/ leader even more.

  2. I think it's impossible to reflect Kennedy's (or Clinton's) success despite publicly immoral behavior without thinking about charisma. Whether you agree with them or not, they know/knew how to get people on their team. Another interesting question is whether or not that's a good thing. Because this discussion is in the political arena, those who agree with the causes Kennedy championed would say yes, because in the end he was accomplishing goals for the common good. Those who don't support the same causes might see him as "slick." Emotional attachments by followers and opponents are at play in the public perception of him after his death.

    I also think it's important to note, in Kennedy's case .. there is the simple fact of human nature that people are reluctant to speak ill of the recently dead, especially when the deceased suffered publicly and emotionally from a painful disease. This has an effect on the Lion view of him so soon after his passing.

    Another interesting question that came to my mind reading this is whether it was a charismatic tactic or genuine sentiment that cause our president to invoke the name of the recently deceased Senator when addressing the nation on his plan for healthcare reform, with the cameras on Kennedy's widow sitting with the First Lady. Comments?

  3. Ann Candler, I often ask the same type of question of whether or not an act of sincerity is genuine. In every situation I try to give the person the benefit of the doubt, but when an image or act of sincerity is made so obvious that everyone can see, it becomes a bit questionable, unless its publicity was out of the person's control.
    Regarding the post, it made me wonder if Senator Kennedy became a leader partially because of the 'leadership failure' that he experienced in the incident where the woman drowned.
    Jonn Gardner states in his book, "On Leadership" that "setting does much to determine the kinds of leaders that emerge and how they play their roles" (Gardner, 6). I believe that Senator Kennedy experienced a setting (the Chappa. Incident) where he had much time after the fact to realize and reflect on the potential life-saving role he may have played in the situation, perhaps as a leader. I think (after reading Chris's comment) that the word 'hero' may be a better word, but what's the real difference between the two in this situation or in any?
    After that incident, it seemed as though Kennedy was determined to step up to the plate and lead. Although the incident had a significant and understandably negative impact on his life, Senator Kennedy most likely decided to learn from the tragedy and never again miss an opportunity for participatory leadership, as you mentioned through his consistent presence in the Senate. I also think that Senator Kennedy made the choice to put himself back in a leadership arena instead of hiding away and hoping to never face the consequences of an unfortunate incident. This reminds me of Burns who said that "leadership always assumes some degree of choice in a context of conflict..." (Burns, 437). Thanks for the insightful article, Sarah.

  4. I enjoy reading the comments and lively discussion on this topic. Chris, I agree with you that there is something about our common humanity that seems to draw us to famously "flawed" people. Geneen (1998) said that we can gain much and lose nothing if we admit to being human.

    AndCandler then posed another insightful comment about sincerity vs. posturing. It is my view that on tactical issues,Kennedy, being the savvy politician he was, did indeed use the latter to serve his political agenda. However, from my reading of his private and public actions, Kennedy seemed to have tried to gain redemption and felt genuine and sincere regret for his moral failure at Chappaqquiddick. I also appreciate the "sentimentality" possibility AnnCandler raised about his death and do think that may have played a role in the Senators positive responses. I also think, however, Kennedy's participatory leadership may have been a key underlying element in the respect they admitted to feeling. Who knows for sure when it comes to politicians, right?

    Alanna made another point that Kennedy learned from his tragic, poor decision. Perhaps, then some of us are drawn to the "redemptive" role model idea and we want to believe we may also be redeemed for our own failings. I'm not sure we can separate our feelings about humans being "complicated" and I also think we are drawn to the "charismatic" as AnnCandler pointed out. The latter makes me think, as Dr. Robbins has mentioned, that it is very hard for us humans to get away from traits. If this is true, maybe, as Stogdill (1948) said, it is a combination the leader's traits and his situation.

  5. I think this is a very interesting post and I definitely agree that the flawed leader is sometimes the easiest to identify with and thus follow. Something that I don’t particularly subscribe to, but one could perhaps argue in this case is the Great Man Theory or Trait Theory. I’m thinking of this because of the highly successful family that Ted came from. Were the traits that made him successful the same as his brothers? Are the Kennedy genes configured just right to put the Kennedy’s in positions of power? I would argue no to the thought that they were born leaders, but I would have to make a case that they were born with the traits that they would help them in the correct situation. So to follow Stodgill’s idea of traits, having those traits may be enabling to the Kennedy’s, but without the proper situation they would not be able to exhibit their leadership. And in some ways the fact that he was part of a successful family gave him the perfect situation to jump into the leadership role that he would remain in for over 40 years.

  6. Hailey, I agree with you that the "Great Man" or trait theory could have also played into Kennedy's success. With "Great Man" there seems to be an element of inheritance by people from the upper class (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991)and Ted fit the inheritance category. The senator's father made a fortune in banking, liquor, real estate and films that his family, including Teddy, inherited. This probably added to the "Kennedy mystique." Once again, it seems difficult to dismiss traits that may capture our collective imagination.


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