The Life of Ted Kennedy: Two Lessons I Haven’t Read Elsewhere

Posted 08.28.2009

Tedkennedy1 Most Americans alive today cannot remember a time when a Kennedy of the generation of John, Robert and Ted was not playing a major public role in the life of the nation. The passing of Ted Kennedy this week literally marks the end of an era and is, I think, one reason why his death has moved so many people.  It is the clear end of an era in all of our lives.

There have been so many perceptive and thoughtful commentaries and remembrances written about Ted Kennedy in the past few days that it feels somewhat redundant on my part to add to the mix. Still, there are three quick things I want to address in this post.

First, I want to point you to some of the columns on Kennedy that I’ve found most thought provoking.  They include David Broder’s in the Washington Post, David Brooks’ in the New York Times and John F. Harris’s and Alexander Burns’ on

Second, I want to share a couple of leadership lessons from Kennedy’s life that I think are important and that I have not seen clearly stated elsewhere (with complete acknowledgement that they may have been. I haven’t read everything.)

The first of these lessons is about resilience and personal redemption.  The record of Ted Kennedy’s life is a mix of significant legislative achievement and, for much of his adulthood, poor and sometimes tragic choices. As he himself acknowledged in a speech at Harvard in 1991,  “I recognize my own shortcomings.  I realize that I alone am responsible for them, and I am the one who must confront them.”  Given everything that had happened in Kennedy’s life up to that point – some of his own making and some not – it wouldn’t have been surprising if at age 59 he had continued on the path he was on. If that had turned out to be the case, it’s unlikely that we would be seeing the level of tribute and remembrance that’s taking place this week. From that speech forward, Kennedy began to reshape the way he lived his life. You could make an argument that his last 18 years were his most admirable and productive. It is because the man had the resilience not to quit and the courage to seek redemption that he finished his life as well as he did.

Which brings me to the second lesson which is about the power of giving and accepting unconditional love in our lives. Kennedy was fortunate and blessed in his life to marry his second wife, Vickie, in 1992.  You can read more about her and what she did for him in this article in the Washington Post but the summary description is she loved him unconditionally and in doing so enabled him to find peace. We have an affection in the United States (and I’m as suspect to it as anyone else) for the myth of the heroic leader that is out there doing great things on his or her own.  Often the leaders themselves become entrapped in that myth. The reality of our interdependence is ignored or overlooked. 

If we’re lucky in life, we find someone who loves us for who we are and we allow them to do that.  And, in turn, we give that love back. The result is that we become not just more fully realized leaders but human beings.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails… When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

When people speak of unconditional love, they often cite those words from Paul whether or not they are Christians or even people of faith. I sometimes think about how different the practice of leadership and the quality of public discourse would be if we were all intentional in following the direction of those words.  Who knows what we might accomplish?

Through the gift of unconditional love, Ted Kennedy was the only brother in his generation to move past the myth of the heroic leader standing alone.  Rest in peace, Senator Kennedy. Thanks for what you accomplished and, in the last years of your life, what you taught us about the power of resilience, redemption and love.