The world changed while John F. Kennedy slept on the evening of October 15, 1962. Just 90 miles away, in Cuba, the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons armed and ready for deployment. It was the start of 13 days known as the 'Cuban Missile Crisis.'
As these nuclear superpowers stared eye to eye, it was estimated that 70 million people would die if Russia and the USA sent those missiles.
At 45, Kennedy was a young president, with the fate of millions resting on his decision about what to do about the missiles.
His advisors were clear in their call to action: The missile sites must be destroyed with the full arsenal of the military. People, and the reputation of the country, were at risk. They not only told him that this was his best option, but that it was his only option.
If their advice turned out to be wrong, there would be millions of deaths, but Kennedy and his advisors wouldn't be alive to see it.
JFK was provoked by a nuclear superpower. He had critics questioning his courage and ability to lead, and bringing up personal and political indiscretions of the past. With that pressure on his shoulders, could anybody blame him for following the advice of the most qualified advisors in the country?
Yet he didn't allow this to cloud his judgement or ability to think. He thought their approach was rushed and dangerous. He reached out to previous presidents and rival political leaders. He used time as a tool and gave himself time to think.
13 days later, Russia agreed to remove the missiles. Fortunately, the world wouldn't have to learn what the results of nuclear warfare would be. How did JFK handle a crisis so well?
I calculated that I’ve met 17,500 people in my life. Of the people I've met, I can count the exceptional leaders on my fingers. This worries me.
Leaders are the bosses who bring more out of you than you realised you had. They're the friends who push you to achieve more than you think you're capable of. They're the people who are honest with you, even when it's difficult.
Leaders are critical to our success as individuals and as a group. It worries me that I can only think of a handful of them.
The exceptional leaders that I've met all led differently, yet they shared certain traits. If we want to produce more leaders, it makes sense to focus on these traits.
WHAT TRAITS MADE THEM LEADERS?
The best leaders shared two traits:
Thinking for themselves
Much like JFK, the best leaders I've come across weren't controlled by other people.
They were people that stood for what they thought was right. They never did something simply because other people thought it was the "correct" thing to do.
They were people that would stop and say, "Hang on, why exactly are we doing this?" instead of going along with something because they were told to.
It's important for a leader to know why we're going to a certain place, not just that the next turn gets us closer.
WHERE DO THESE TRAITS COME FROM?
The non-conformity part:
Conformity isn't the problem. I've often argued against it, but I've realised recently that I was wrong.
As humans, we conform because standing out from the herd makes us a target.
We see it in nature. If a zebra's stripes are identifiable, it'll be hunted by lions. Identifiable stripes make the zebra stand out, and give the lions a target. It allows the lions to organise their hunt. Identical stripes protect the zebra by allowing it to blend into the herd.
Conventional wisdom is usually correct because the traditions we follow have been developed and tweaked over hundreds of years. Conforming to them is usually ok.
But there are times where conformity is dangerous. You don't want to do what others are doing when the herd is heading off the edge of a cliff. When you conform to something you don't agree with, you're saying "I don’t agree with your ideas or your values, but I’m going to follow you anyway."
Good leaders avoid conformity when becomes dangerous. They're happy to stand out from the herd when their beliefs differ. Leadership is about finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd.
If we're wondering why we aren't producing more leaders, we can start by asking why we aren't producing more non-conformists.
Why is non-conformity so rare?
Top schools, institutions and universities view themselves as places which train leaders. These institutions claim to create leaders. They tell their students to view themselves as leaders. If you want to be a leader, it seems it would make sense to go to one of these places.
These institutions are competitive though. The students who go there are the best and the brightest. They can ace any test and achieve any goal.
That's why they get into these institutions. Because if you can achieve it now, you'll be able to achieve it in the real world and give the institution something to brag about.
The easiest way to ace tests and achieve goals is to jump through hoops. Jumping through hoops means manoeuvring well.
It means kissing up to the people above you and kicking down the people below you. It’s pleasing your teachers and your superiors. It’s being whatever people want you to be, and neglecting what you want to be. It's not taking stupid risks, like trying to change how things are done. It's keeping the routine going.
Jumping through hoops can take you far in life, but it can’t take you far in leadership.
Great leaders don't keep the routine going, just because it's the routine. They don't suck up to the people above them, just because it's the fastest path to promotion. They don't kick down those below them, just because it’s easiest in the moment.
The thinking part:
The pressure to conform to certain degrees, certain jobs and certain companies, creates people who struggle to think for themselves. People who know where to jump next, but have no idea why they're jumping there.
What made JFK a thinker—and a great leader—is that he was able to think things through for himself. And because he could, he had the confidence and the courage to argue for his ideas even when they didn't please his advisors.
The world needs people who are willing to stand up and say, "Hang on, I think we've taken a wrong turn and this is why..." People who can think for themselves and stand up for what they believe. That's how we move forward.
True leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions, even when they don't conform to the beliefs of others.
WHY DOES THIS MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?
You might be saying that you're not a leader. That leadership doesn't apply to you. But we're all leaders of our own lives.
We'll each face crises of our own. The stakes may be lower, but they'll matter to us. We'll be forced to make decisions where a large chunk of our future will depend on that one moment. If we want to get those moments right, we'll have to think clearly.
We'll have to form an opinion for ourselves and have the conviction to act on it.
Good decision making is like any other skill - improved and perfected through practice. Bad decisions come before good ones. It's part of the learning process. But this process is put on hold when people are pushed to conform. When they're told which hoop to jump through next.
Jumping from hoop to hoop allows us to avoid the doubts we have over what we're doing. It allows us to avoid the difficult questions. The questions we know the answers to, we're just not sure we want to hear them.
Am I doing the right thing with my life? Would I be happy with my life if I died tomorrow? Do I actually believe the things my parents taught me? Am I happy?
These questions are important. Being able to tackle them honestly and courageously prepares us for obstacles we'll face throughout life.
They prepare us to stick our hand up and say, "Hang on, I don't think this is right" even when keeping quiet and conforming is easier.
These are formidable questions. I find them formidable at 24, and I don't think I'll find them easier at 54.
But one thing seems obvious - I need to start preparing for them now. Preparing by forgetting the hoops I'm told to jump through, and learning to think for myself.
P.s. I’d love to hear your thoughts on leadership and this essay. I’m always looking to improve - your feedback helps me do that. Comment below or contact me here.
Thank you to Tim Proctor, Marin Mikulić, Raghuram Sarangan, Jesse Markus, Prashanth Narayan, Pierre Taljaard, Ayush Biyani and Dr. Jane Shore for the feedback - you improved it enormously!
If you enjoyed that, you'll love the follow-up piece about 'How To Think For Yourself'. Drop your email below and it'll be delivered to your inbox as soon as it's released.