As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, there is no better lesson in leadership when it comes to learning from failure than the 1961 fiasco known as the Bay of Pigs.
It was clearly Kennedy’s most significant and embarrassing public failure in his three years as president. Many leaders would have found it impossible to recover from such a devastating defeat. It was a three-day battle that began on April 17, 1961. As our commander-in-chief, Kennedy made the fateful decision to take the advice of top military leaders and allow for approximately 1,500 “Cuban exiles,” who were supported by American military training and equipment, to invade what was known as the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. American military personnel were also involved.
The plan was for them to gain the support of disillusioned Cubans who would join the effort to overthrow President Fidel Castro, except it didn’t work out that way. Castro’s forces of more than 20,000 military troops were waiting, and they ultimately captured and killed many of the invading force, including several Americans. America was publicly embarrassed and Castro scoffed at Kennedy, who immediately regretted his decision to invade.
Weeks after this debacle, Kennedy would tell reporter Hugh Sidey, who would later write about this conversation for a Time magazine story on April 16, 2001, “I want to know how all this could have happened. There were 50 or so of us, presumably the most experienced and smartest people we could get, to plan such an operation. … But five minutes after it began to fall in, we all looked at each other and asked, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’… I guess you get walled off from reality when you want something to succeed too much.”
But Kennedy was a quick learner and used the lessons from the Bay of Pigs to bring a peaceful resolution to the pressure-filled, high-stakes, Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Some of those leadership lessons are just as relevant today for the rest of us, regardless of our profession:
• After the Bay of Pigs, JFK would acknowledge that he did not challenge the military leaders around him who were convinced the mission would work. Leaders must aggressively challenge all advice or recommendations regardless of the source and assume the potential for the worst case scenario.
• Historical accounts after the Bay of Pigs indicate that many in the Kennedy inner circle were opposed to invading Cuba, but kept silent. Great leaders create an environment where challenging them is encouraged and supported. If no one is playing “devil’s advocate,” the risk of engaging in “group think” is dangerous and can lead to deadly consequences.
• During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, several options for resolution were put on the table. In the Bay of Pigs, there was only one option — the invasion of Cuba. Kennedy clearly learned that it is essential for leaders to have multiple options for debate and discussion.
• No matter how bad a mistake a leader makes, or whoever else was involved in the decision-making process, truly great leaders step up and own it.
According to Ralph Martin’s book, “A Hero for Our Time,” after the Bay of Pigs debacle, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recommended that responsibility be shared among many in the administration, saying; “We could have recommended against it and we didn’t.” To which President Kennedy responded; “Absolutely not. I am the president. I could have decided otherwise. It is my responsibility.”
More than half a century later, these leadership lessons are just as relevant. Great leaders accept full responsibility when things go wrong.
How timely indeed.