Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination and a reminder to us all that leadership is risky business.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy told some Americans things they did not want to hear. Race tensions were escalating and the President was making statements that segregationists did not like. For example, on October 17, 1960 he stated:
If we are to open employment opportunities in this country for members of all races and creeds, then the Federal Government must set an example … I am not going to promise a Cabinet post or any other post to any race or ethnic group. That is racism in reverse at its worst. So I do not promise to consider race or religion in my appointments if I am successful. I promise only that I will not consider them.
This statement doesn’t sound very radical today, but for some at the time these words likely confirmed their belief that Kennedy would soon go against their deeply-held values and beliefs. Ultimately the President danced on the edge of his authority and paid the ultimate price for doing so.
There is a lesson for conservationists from this moment in history. Leadership is sometimes telling people what they don’t want to hear for some purpose. For example, expressing a minority opinion about an important conservation issue with our colleagues could lead to isolation and lack of trust. Taking an unpopular public stance on a conservation issue can unleash a whirlwind of controversy. And senior authority figures normally don’t want more issues! The outcome from saying what needs to be said can lead to bad assignments, demotions, even termination.
But having the courage to say the hard thing alone is not leadership. Delivering the message in the right tone at the right time without alienating others is leadership. With the right timing and delivery, we can build the relationships needed to solve messy conservation challenges.
What works for you? How do you deliver an opinion that others don’t want to hear?