Last month, I shared the story of how “groupthink” in President John F. Kennedy’s administration led to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

Here’s the next chapter of that story: How JFK applied lessons learned from that setback to achieve his greatest foreign policy success.

Eighteen months after Bay of Pigs, the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba and aimed them at the United States. Those missiles could kill eighty million Americans.

Kennedy had to respond, but how?

Military advisors recommended an immediate strike to take out the missiles.

If nothing had changed in his administration, that recommendation might have taken hold. Cabinet members might have thought it was the wrong approach, but they might have sat on their hands. Groupthink might have led Kennedy toward another disastrous decision.

But after Bay of Pigs, Kennedy vowed to “profit from this lesson.”

That started with taking full responsibility for the invasion’s failure.

Strong leaders admit mistakes. They reflect on failure. They embrace, rather than deny, vulnerability. They welcome opposing views.

As he reflected on the Bay of Pigs failure, Kennedy revamped how his top team would make critical decisions. So when the military brass recommended aggressive action, Kennedy was prepared to nurture and explore other views. In fact, Kennedy insisted that his team consider other options.

To prevent turf wars and self-serving recommendations, Kennedy encouraged each person to focus on the problem as a whole, rather than approaching it from their own department’s perspective.

To discourage advisors from reflexively deferring to the “boss” in the Oval Office, Kennedy:

  • Convened meetings in informal settings, rather than in the White House, with no formal agenda and protocol.
  • Established sub-groups that were free to brainstorm alternatives that didn’t surface in larger meetings.
  • Scheduled meetings that he did not attend.

The new procedures helped Kennedy and his team discover and explore all options, solicit diverse viewpoints, debate possibilities, and select the best plan based on its merits.

Kennedy and his team decided to execute a naval blockade of Cuba to force the Soviets to remove the missiles. The plan was successful. Most historians agree that Kennedy’s actions prevented a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union.

The lessons learned from Kennedy’s “perfect failure” serve us today as guiding principles for effective decision-making.

All of us make mistakes, all of us fail. How we handle failure and what we learn from it is the key to success.

At this moment of unprecedented crisis, these lessons are more important than ever.

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