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Lessons for Senior Executives from the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Lessons for Senior Executives from the Cuban Missile Crisis

Lessons for Senior Executives from the Cuban Missile Crisis
Thoughts on Authentic Leadership


By John P. Schreitmueller, PCC-BC


I was a grade school kid in October 1962.  But I remember with clarity watching President Kennedy on TV on the evening of October 22nd of that year, as he grimly outlined the threat of nuclear missiles the Soviet Union had positioned on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.  Kennedy pulled no punches in his speech, and stated any missile launched from Cuba by the Soviets on any target in North, Central or South America would be considered an attack by the Soviets on the United States… “requiring a full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union.”  In other words, if the Soviets let fly a missile anywhere near us, there would be nuclear war.

Ever since, I’ve been a serious student of the the missile crisis of 1962. Its repercussions remain with us today.

Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy and later under  President Johnson, was a key player in the US responses to the crisis.  His counsel during the crisis is heard throughout tapes President Kennedy made during those 13 days. In his later years, McNamara – a controversial figure throughout his service as Defense Secretary – admirably reflected on the crisis, his role, and lessons he took away from it.

A key lesson McNamara emphasized in The Fog of War, a brilliant documentary from 2004 during which he related to the Cuban Missile Crisis and later to the Vietnam War, is one that has lasting relevance for business executives, top organizational leaders and political leaders.  It is simply stated, but a great deal of emotional intelligence and wisdom is necessary to employ it.  Here it is:

Empathize with your adversary and place yourself in his (or her) shoes

Do you see what this implies?  McNamara talks to us from his perspective of 57 years ago, and underlines how President Kennedy and members of the special committee he drew around him to navigate the crisis, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (“ExComm”), ultimately placed themselves in the shoes of Nikita Krushchev, then Chairman of the Soviet government and Kennedy’s chief adversary.  Ultimately, Kennedy’s ability to see the situation from Krushchev’s position, and to sense pressures under which Khrushchev was operating, led to a solution to the crisis at the last minute.  A tenet of Kennedy’s policy throughout the ordeal was to avoid backing Krushchev into a corner from which he could not escape with any dignity.

Take this scenario down a few levels from the threat of nuclear war to the types of situations every business, organizational or political leader faces.  Think about it.  There’s almost always an adversary of some sort, isn’t there? What about the ongoing mess in Washington, where both political parties are dug in to the extent it seems no one has the wisdom to understand and empathize with what’s really going on with the other side.  Maybe it’s the guy who just keeps re-trading on a deal you thought was done.  Perhaps it’s the woman who persists in making your internal approach on a particular initiative difficult.  Or it might be the other team who appears they are out to discount important information you are attempting to pass along.

Whatever the case, consider next time applying McNamara’s lesson to your situation.  I know.  It’s hard to empathize with people who seem their sole mission in life is to make yours miserable.  But remember, last time you looked, he/she/they are people too.  They have pressures and needs, and they often act out of them.  Your choice is, who is going to be the adult in the room, even when every bone in your body says “strike now and strike hard.”

There is nothing wimpish about understanding the person on the other side. In fact, it is one of the most powerful tools you, as a top leader, can employ.  Next time you are facing a situation where you would normally up the ante and act out of aggression towards a real or perceived adversary, think twice. History shows us that extraordinary men and women who came before you demonstrated the type of emotional intelligence and wisdom McNamara cites to reach large deals and resolutions to difficult problems.

Robert McNamara passed away in 2009.  Remember his lesson… and put it into action.




John P. Schreitmueller is an Atlanta-based board certified executive coach practitioner.  His experience demonstrates lessons  from history are highly effective in partnering with clients on their journeys to authentic leadership and goals.


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