Thirteen Days – A classic movie illustrating leadership concepts

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Leadership and leaders in our societies have existed since man has been known to set foot on earth. It is that ray of hope, guidance and helping hand which followers seek for in order to achieve common desired goals. It is a very powerful psychological condition where one man or woman is able to lead and control the actions of the others. In today’s world, leadership has become all more important with growing uncertainties and fast changes in environment and the role of these individuals as leaders is highly sensitive in taking decisions which could have deep impending affects for their countries, organizations, families, etc.


The objective of this assignment is to analyze the leadership role and performance of one such leader who successfully was able to contain and avoid the world’s first ever nuclear war between the two superpowers Russia and USA. This leader is none other than President John Kennedy of USA and the event deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The essay is based on the year 2000 released movie “Thirteen Days” which covers the entire missile crisis and the story is based on real life events. The essay is based on the analysis of leadership as portrayed in the movie as well as some background study on the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Before starting with the analysis, a literature review on leadership styles will be presented to provide a benchmark and model to evaluate and critically analyze President Kennedy’s actions as a leader. This literature review will be done using variety of textbooks and journals to source for information. Following this, a synopsis and explanation of the movie story line and the chain of events would be provided and the main leaders would also be identified. Explanations would also be given to illustrate examples of situations where sensitive and careful leadership capabilities were needed to avoid failures and achieve intended objectives. Meanwhile, with the help of examples from a few incidents in the movie, the leadership style in the light of literature review will be discussed and analyzed for President Kennedy and also evaluated whether it was effective or ineffective. Before ending, critical analysis would also be done on the choice of actions by the leader and consideration of alternatives actions would be discussed. The leader’s potential weaknesses would also be mentioned and then finally, conclusions to our essay would be presented.




1.        Literature Review on Leadership




Since earlier decades, there has been a significant change in what is expected to be the role and styles of modern day leaders. In the words of Warren Bennis, we now have a ‘new leader’ theory in place which makes extinct the early 20th century styles and expectations of Taylorist scientific leadership (Bennis and Nanus, 2003). Cox (2001) explains that there are two broad styles of leadership which a leader may exhibit; transactional and transformational. A transactional leader is one whose style reflects Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory; that is, such leaders provide tangible rewards in the form of money or benefits to their followers in exchange for work or other forms of loyalty behaviour. Transformational leaders, on the other hand, were those who engaged more closely with their followers and focused also on the intangible aspects of them. These intangible aspects refer to the followers’ intrinsic needs and wants which go beyond the transactional nature of “you work for me this and I pay you this” attitude.


In second half of the 20th century, it is widely advocated by academics to make use of transformational leadership styles at work places. For example, in early 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs for achieving greater employee motivation and productivity and this theory suggested leaders to engage with subordinates with an ‘intrinsic approach’ rather than transactional nature. Similarly, McGregor famously identified the two leadership styles of theory X (transactional) and theory Y (transformational) leadership. Others such as Herzberg and Mayo et al also gave evidence of the need to engage in more intrinsic considerations of subordinates’ psychology to achieve greater outputs. Several other academics including Bass (1990), Barnett et al (2001), Bennis and Nanus (2003), Judge and Piccolo (2004), McCormick and Conners (2001), etc all advocate the need for transformational leadership in the modern world. Therefore, in this essay, we will be analyzing the leadership style of President Kennedy from a transformative leader expectations and perspectives.


So what are the roles and expectations of transformational leaders? Transformational leaders are those who are able to demonstrate and combine features of task-orientation, relations-orientation as well as participatory leadership. As per Bass (1990), these leaders clearly present and outline objectives, purposes and missions to individuals, groups, and departments which are ambitiously accepted by them and pursued to be achieved. Such leaders also take a deeper interest in the learning and development of their followers in order to motivate them to look beyond their self-interest and start thinking for the good of the group as a whole. Thus, these leaders when the need arises could demonstrate task-oriented approach towards followers, and at other times relations-oriented and then at times also encourage feedback, inputs and so adopt participative approach. Thus, Bass (1990) concludes that transformative leadership generates greater willingness and capacities on part of the followers which leads to additional efforts and efficient outcomes for the organization.


According to Barbuto (2005), the key features expected of a transformative leader are integrity and honesty and charismatic personality to overcome challenges which leads to the feeling of trust, admiration, loyalty and respect on part of the followers for their leader. Furthermore, the leader also needs to be democratic and consultative in nature which allows followers to engage with him/her and provide their inputs. Meanwhile, Barnett (2003) adds that such leaders need to be focused and adaptive to changing conditions and environment and produce best practices which are most suitable at that particular moment of time. The combination of task, relations and participatory approach helps the leader create a loyal followers base and collectively the group’s morale, motivation and achievements can exceed expectations.


In simple models, to summarize whatever has been mentioned above and also to evaluate leadership, we will make use of the four common I’s model as presented in Hall et al (2002) as well as Leithwood’s Six Model as illustrated in Leithwood and Jantzi (2000). First presenting the Four Common I’s Model, the diagram below illustrates the model.




The first idealized influence in this model refers to the personal characteristics, intelligence and behaviour traits of the leader which make others follow and respect his authority. The individualized consideration factor deals with the relations and engagement capability of the leader to be able to specifically coach and cater to the individual needs of the followers. The inspirational motivation factor as the name suggests is the ability of the leader to lead the way and motivate others to work hard and diligently for achieving objectives and targets. And finally, intellectual stimulation stems out the need for continual implementation of creativity to update and solve processes as well as encourage putting forward of new innovative ideas from the followers.


Now presenting the Leithwood’s six model of transformational leadership as presented in Leithwood and Jantzi (2000).




This model is very similar to the four common I’s model with intellectual stimulation, individualized support being similar in both. However, Leithwood emphasizes on creating high expectation benchmarks in his model as well as providing effective two-way communication. In spirit, both models are similar and would be used in our analysis of President Kennedy and his leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finally, as a comprehensive measure of human capabilities which falls under the categories listed above, Hay (2006) presents a table (in the following page) with all capabilities expected from a transformational leader. Hay constructs this table by scanning through extensive literature and combing the main elements of transformational leadership behaviour in one table. Armed with literature on leadership styles, we will now go on analyzing and discussing leadership in the movie “Thirteen Days”.




2.        Characteristics of Transformational Leaders




·        clear sense of purpose, expressed simply (e.g. metaphors, anecdotes)

·        value driven (e.g. have core values and congruent behaviour)

·        strong role model

·        high expectations

·        persistent

·        self-knowing

·        perpetual desire for learning

·        love work

·        life-long learners

·        identify themselves as change agents

·        enthusiastic

·        able to attract and inspire others

·        strategic

·        effective communicator

·        emotionally mature

·        courageous

·        risk-taking

·        risk-sharing

·        visionary

·        unwilling to believe in failure

·        sense of public need. 

·        considerate of the personal needs of employees

·        listens to all viewpoints to develop spirit of cooperation

·        mentoring

·        able to deal with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity



Source: Hay (2006)





3.        Thirteen Days – A classic movie illustrating leadership concepts




The movie Thirteen Days is a brilliant Hollywood production of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The movie was released in the year 2000 and illustrates how the then President of America, John Kennedy and his aides helped avert what could have been a disastrous nuclear weapons aided world war 3. The plot of the movie is based on real events that occurred in 1962 and is briefly explained below.


On a routine aerial surveillance clandestinely conducted by the US Air Force and C.I.A, a Lockheed reconnaissance aircraft called U-2 (nicknamed Dragon Lady) took alarming photos of missiles construction and placement in Cuba by the then Soviet Union (USSR). When this aircraft returned to base and presented the photographs to experts of the National Photographic Interpretation Centre of US to study, it was immediately understood that these long range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles were offensive measures by the USSR threatening the US homeland. Their range was enough to launch a nuclear strike wiping out most of the Eastern and Southern United States within a span of five minutes if launched.


The US President was immediately apprised of this situation early morning and this is where the tense moments of the movie starts. The Central Intelligence Agency gives estimates that the missiles will be operational and ready to be launched within two weeks and the USSR might not be shy in taking the first strike at the US. And the nuclear strike which could reach and attack US Eastern and Southern territories within 5 minutes can seriously deter United States retaliation capability. President Kennedy is the one man who has to take the decision which could have a deep impact on the lives of millions of Americans. He has to take the decision where any mistake could lead to a world war 3, with the vital difference from the earlier world wars being countries capable of launching nuclear strikes which could lead to end of humanity.


With these disturbing revelations, President Kennedy and his advisors needed to come up with plans and strategies which could protect the integrity of the United States mainland from a Soviet attack. And he shows boldness and resilience in his character while discussing the gravity of the situation with his intelligence, armed forces and other US government officials under him. President Kennedy makes it clear that the US would not be intimidated by an offensive country so close to its mainland and wants the missiles out of Cuba. The US armed forces and department of defence officials and the Pentagon were highly insistent on a pre-emptive air strike assault on Cuba to first get rid of the missiles followed by a land invasion of Cuba. However, Kennedy did not share the same optimism as he wisely reminded his war-hungry generals that the Soviet Union would retaliate and lives would be lost on both sides. And this could escalate into World War 3.


President Kennedy desired for a solution that will remove the missiles from Cuba and also avoid an act of war. After much deliberation they decide to hold a naval quarantine to prevent Soviet ships from landing in Cuba and facilitating the build up and operational commencement of the missiles. This quarantine is not considered a blockade of Cuba which is formally considered an act of war. With passing tense moments and President Kennedy publicly revealing the existence of these weapons in Cuba, the Soviet Union engages in back door communications with the US officials. First a message was conveyed that the Soviets were willing remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for public assurance and promise that the US will never invade Cuba. Later onwards, a second message was also received by the US officials which was apparently written by the Soviet Premier Khrushchev himself stating that the Soviets would remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US removing its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.


The Kennedy government takes a risky step and decides to ignore the second message but oblige to the first proposal of assuring that it would never invade Cuba. During this period, several alarming actions are taken by certain US officials without informing or taking consent of the President such as raising the war readiness levels to higher stages as well as a launch of an offensive US missile. Finally, after much deliberation and arguments, the Kennedy administration agrees to remove all Jupiter missiles from southern Italy and Turkey in exchange for the Soviet Union removing all missiles from Cuba. The movie then shows happiness and relief on the faces of the US government officials as the Soviet ships turn back from the quarantine lines off the coast of Cuba which were earlier facing an offensive standoff with the US naval ships. An imminent nuclear war is averted.


Throughout the movie, the main leader has been US President Kennedy himself, but the movie also shows several key advisors and aides to the President who were instrumental in giving advices to the President. Two of the closest ones were Kenny O’Donnell, special assistant to the President and Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of the President and Attorney General of USA. However, many of the decisions were taken by President Kennedy himself showing wisdom and courage. This movie allows excellent analysis of leadership concepts since President Kennedy had a major decision to make at a very short span of time. And under him were several high ranking and important officials who had their own inputs and feedbacks to give. And the gravity of the decision was also high to the extent of millions of lives at stake.




4.        Leadership analysis of President Kennedy




President Kennedy since the start of the movie showed a brave, focused and proactive leadership character. This could be claimed since after being informed about the grave situation, he didn’t panic but calmly initiated tasks and assembled advisors to tackle the situation. The choice of setting up an advisory committee to be called the Ex-Comm also reflected his willingness to act in a participatory approach to draw upon expert opinions of his subordinates in order to advise him on the right course of action to avert this situation. During the first briefing and meeting of the Ex-Comm, the President paid attention and listened to the statements of the various government officials and then gave his decisions. He gave everybody a clear vision and goal that while he wants to take a tough stance and wants the missiles out of Cuba, he wants to avoid the act of war. And he gives wisdom behind this judgement being that there will be retaliation measures which could lead to Russian Premier Khrushchev attacking Berlin as an immediate consequence with nuclear weapons involved. Thus, even while talking to his two close aides after the first ex-comm meeting, Robert and Kenny, he mentions the need for quick alternatives. And then he listens to their view points and suggestions and agrees to follow them.


From the example of the first meeting with his advisors and followed by a late night meeting with the ex-comm, it is clear the President Kennedy has given the visions and goals of what he expects from the situation at hand, missiles out of Cuba without going for war. By having experts from all sorts of US government departments, he also has allowed the stimulation of intellect for providing creative ideas to solve the problem. By engaging and seeking everyone’s opinions, he has allowed participation to prevail; while giving his judgement with wisdom and seeking alternatives, he has satisfied the expectations of professional practice and values. He also expects people to come up with a bright challenging idea of averting this situation in short period of time. Therefore, so far he has satisfied all of the conditions of Leithwood’s six dimensions of transformational leader.


However, his insistence to seek war alternatives seems to make him appear coward-like to his war generals as they are not impressed by the end of the late night meeting’s outcome. Furthermore, the audience at the movie is exposed to a worried President later at night in his office taking medicines at the presence of his two close aides. But what could be argued is that the President only displayed this concern with his close aides and did not show weaknesses while discussing and talking with the ex-comm. And besides, once his aides started panicking and arguing, the President again calmly tells them to remain focused on the situation.


The second incident which I would like to discuss would be on the third day of the crisis when the President flew to Connecticut to participate in a pre-planned election campaign for his party’s congressional candidate. Throughout the campaign, he gave no indication of the grave crisis which was at the back of his head and he joked and displayed good mood. He achieved all the goals that were expected of him from his participation in the campaign. And as soon as the campaign was over, the President heads back to Washington to take care of the affairs again.


The incidents so far I have mentioned exhibit the President being an effective leader by satisfying all conditions of Leithwood’s six dimensions of transformational leadership. The third incident which I would like to discuss is a meeting taking place at the oval office where President Kennedy has assembled his close aids and Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces to discuss options. His Generals are insisting and strongly calling for a quick call for air strikes followed by invasion. His Air Force Chief goes to the extent of suggesting that alternative measures such as diplomatic channels and naval blockages are weak options. Here I would argue that the President is displaying ineffectiveness in his leadership which makes his war-generals think he is weak. The fact that the Kennedy is engaged in deep thinking mode while listening to his generals and offering little comments other than search for ‘alternatives’ is not going well with the generals. From the viewpoint of the four common I’s, the President lacked the Idealized Influence aspect here since the generals seemed to be respecting his position of authority rather than admiring or respecting Kennedy himself as a leader. This is obvious as after leaving the office, the chief of air force remarks, “these Kennedys’ are going to ruin the country”. Moreover, by keeping quiet and in deep thinking mode, the President is not giving individualized consideration to the generals’ motives for insistence of strikes nor is he offering them any motivation to think of alternatives. As a result of the weaknesses in the other three I’s, the fourth intellect stimulation isn’t taking place either in the minds of the generals’ who remain adamant on strikes. However, on the flip side, the President remains attentive and listens to their viewpoints and even shares the responsibility of decision making with chief of Air Force when he replies calmly to him that they are together in this ‘bad fix’.


Due to constraints of the word limit, further incidents are not able to be listed and discussed but it already has allowed us to do a quick analysis in the light of literature about the leadership style of President Kennedy. The obvious evaluation is that while the President’s leadership style has been effective in several places, it has not been complete and there were certain inefficiencies in place which are discussed in the next section.




5.        Critical analysis of the leadership characteristics




For this section, I will be using the list of characteristics expected of a transformational leader as summarized by Hay (2006) mentioned in page 7 of this assignment. From the above analyzed incidents, it is clear that President Kennedy expressed clear sense of purpose and goals (missiles out of Cuba without war); displayed emotional maturity by not bowing down to the generals’ pressures for war or getting infuriated with them; was willing to take risks (as he chose to ignore the second letter from Russian Premier later in the movie); willing to share risks (as he deputed his close aides some tasks); was visionary as he could foresee possible World War 3 which his generals wished to neglect; did not believe in failure and persisted that there were alternative methods to avert the crisis other than war; listened to all viewpoints from every advisor; and of course dealt with and survived complex, uncertain and ambiguous situations.


However, President Kennedy lacked the ability to be a strong role model since there were growing frustrations and back-biting about the President’s ability to lead from several of his advisors and war generals. He was not able to effectively mentor his vision and way of thinking to his war generals nor was he able to attract or inspire them during the days of the crisis. Only his close aides remained loyal to him and admired and respected him. By keeping a quiet, deep thinking personality, he also did not appear charismatic or enthusiast.


Therefore, the leader in the movie Thirteen Days and had both effective and ineffective leadership traits. He scored well in terms of consultation, participative approach as well as had high ethical values since he considered the grave impact of retaliation measures by the Soviets. He was concerned about deaths which will occur should war erupt. He was visionary and remained focused on what was the task at his hand. And in the end he was able to successfully avert a worst possible nuclear war.




6.        Conclusion




Towards conclusion, with the help of academic literature, in this essay we analyzed the leadership role of President Kennedy in the movie “Thirteen Days”. Literature identified that in modern day, transformational leadership is considered more effective specifically for white collar jobs. This view is supported by evidence from various motivational studies.


We used two models of transformational leadership called as Four Common I’s and Leithwood’s Six to analyze and discuss President Kennedy’s leadership abilities. He was considered an effective leader for most decision making but there did exist some weaknesses in him. With the help of transformational leadership characteristics summary from Hay (2006), there was a critical analysis presented on what characteristics the President was strong at and what characteristics he was weak at. Overall, he had done the right job and averted a major war.









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