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?