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Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Faculty Director of the MIT Leadership Center.

The Late Bloomer

Teddy Kennedy, the Lion of the Senate, is the stuff of legends, and proof that leaders develop over time. Though born into a family committed to public service and leadership, Teddy was not the brother designated for fame. His could have been a story of the misspent life of the younger son, but Teddy Kennedy found a way to turn his life around and become a true statesman. His voice, passion, power and true caring for people, only intensified over time.

Teddy Kennedy was an exemplary leader. First and foremost, as Joe Biden pointed out, "it was never about him but always about you." Kennedy knew how to reach out to others: He cared and built solid relationships with democrats and republicans, rich and poor, powerful and downtrodden.

He went beyond the interpersonal, articulating a vision of a strong and proud nation that provided health care to all, took care of the poor, and was a model of strength and liberty around the world. His oratory was rousing and convincing but he could also shift from passion to action. He was a pragmatist, moving legislation through the senate like no other. He had a great sense of the political terrain and knew when to hold and when to give, when to act and when to lay low, when to stay partisan and when to reach across the aisle. And he made things happen. He invented legislation that could please multiple parties, garnered support from wherever he could, stood fast in the face of opposition--and thus shaped the political terrain.

But at the center of what a leader does, is who he is. And Teddy Kennedy was known as a man of his word. He told the family of a soldier killed in Iraq that he would get armored vehicles for the war, and he did so. When he made a deal with the opposition he kept to his commitment even when it became difficult to do so. For over four decades, he stayed true to the belief that things could be better and fought to make it so.

By Deborah Ancona

 |  August 28, 2009; 11:49 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Ted Kennedy was one of the very few politicians since WWII who was a friend of the people and who championed the interests of ordinary powerless US citizens. It is likely on this basis that his legacy, fame, and place in history will be decided. It would not surprise me if John Adams, the author of "Nixon in China," were to write an opera about Ted. Against the backdrop of Ted's sustained and historic achievement in realizing his liberal politics, his devout Roman Catholicism was a constant source of strength in a troubled personal life. He survived the tragedy of the violent deaths of his three older brothers and he was the author of a tragedy when he drove a car in an accident that took the life of a girlfriend. He married an alcoholic and was probably unfaithful in his marriage. Two of his children survived cancer. And when age and a changing political climate caught up with him, he was literally saved, both as a person and as a politician, by his brilliant second wife, a person who was his equal and his partner, and who shared with him the Roman Catholic faith and a commitment to liberal politics. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them: Ted is one of the few major figures in US history of whom it can be said that all three of Shakespeare's categories of greatness apply to him.

Posted by: tlally99 | September 1, 2009 3:43 AM
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Ah, the Lion of the Senate is a "late bloomer." I see. In my next life, I'm coming back as a rich kid who gets expelled from Harvard for cheating, is handed a Senate seat at 30, drowns one young woman while hitting on all the rest while making a drunken fool of myself in every social setting from West Palm Beach to the upper East side.

Then, eventually, I'll get my act together because I'm a "late bloomer." Write me up a fawning obit, will you? Oh--it's ok to make a passing reference to my "youthful indiscretions." Adds a little pizzaz.

Posted by: jd5024 | September 1, 2009 1:37 AM
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Mary Jo Kopechne was a friend of mine. I have strong reservations about the kudos regarding Ted Kennedy's life. Little was mentioned about Chappaquiddick and the death of a 27 year old young woman whose life ended as a result of Kennedy's reckless behavior. I have relieved those days from 40 years ago during these past few days as the media fawned over Kennedy. Her death was mentioned as a 'misadventure' of his youth. Tell that to her parents.
It took another 10 years for him to pull his life together. I believe in redemption but let's not reduce Mary Jo's life to a passing paragragh.

Posted by: ellykluge | August 31, 2009 3:55 PM
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Late bloomer? I think not. Ted Kennedy was being groomed for a political career since his teens when dinner conversation with his Dad had to show that he was well informed about issues of the day. It was an order. Learning about how to gain Power was the goal.
This is a man with a checkered past. While he had accomplishments, he also had manslaughter and alcoholism which are not mentioned. His expulsion from Harvard for cheating follwed by the dissolution of numerous marriages indicates a troubled past. His service in the Senate was not so difficult as described. He did not serve at all for the past fifteen months, and prior to that only Tuesdays and Thursdays. He was a Senator-For-Life. the same as other Senators who rarely do any work, e.g., Robert Byrd. The same as Prince Charles. He just existed and took part in those activities which interested him.

Posted by: drzimmern1 | August 31, 2009 1:59 PM
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The ratio of commentary to reporting has gone waaaaaay over the top. As far as I can tell, this commentary piece has been written 10 times already.

Funny how none of those 11 examples of hagiography has really given TK's "youthful indiscretion" at Chappaquiddick the attention it deserves. Mary Jo Kepechne dies when TK was a 36-year-old senator, husband, father, and sole surviving scion of the Kennedy clan.

Posted by: Peejay | August 31, 2009 11:46 AM
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You people never cite, along with your glowing comments of EMK, the outcomes of his good intentions. Factor in the enormous dollar and regulatory costs and the encroachment of federalism into people lives, businesses, and state/local governments (unfunded mandates) and the picture changes dramatically. As a final measure of the approriatenes of liberal policies, ask yourself if they pass constitutional muster. That gets overlooked so much these days and yet it remains the underpinning of the restraints that are supposed to guide the relationship between big government and the governed.

Posted by: mrsteevo56 | August 31, 2009 8:36 AM
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