Great words from Boston

27 Jul

While I was in Boston last week, taking an intensive course at the Harvard Business School, I came upon the J F Kennedy Park. It’s a lovely place, relatively simple and a welcoming space for locals and visitors alike.
At the centre of the park is a fountain which is adorned by several quotations from the great man.

I found it really moving to be there, in his home city and reading words which he had spoken there.
Here are two quotations which I find really inspiring and challenging.

‘When at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us, our success or failure in whatever office we hold will be measured by the answers to four questions:

    Were we truly men of courage?

    Were we truly men of integrity?

    Were we truly men of judgment?

    Were we truly men of dedication?’

These words were spoken during an address to the Massachusetts legislature, on January 9th, 1961, 11 days before his Inauguration as President of the United States. Kennedy’s reflections upon the real tests of history, as opposed to the popularity and prestige which he enjoyed and would continue to enjoy, are worth contemplating still, and no matter what our role is in society. All of us need to be people of integrity and judgment, and people with the courage to face the real issues and challenges of our own lives and whatever areas of responsibility we hold. But need also to be people of dedication to those tasks and judgments. These four questions, and their combined challenges, are worth a long sit in the park, in the peace of the grass and the trees, and the comforting flow of the fountain.

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There’s another great statement there too, which comes from an address given at Amherst College, in Boston, on October 26th, 1963. That is, these words were spoken less than one month before JFK was assassinated. That gives them a special poignancy also. These were, too, represent a real challenge to all of us who seek or exercise any kind of power, in our work or in the wider community:

‘The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.’

Here, Kennedy acknowledges two really important things: first, that power is such an enticing thing that in fact we can become its slaves. It uses us. But he rightly affirms that there must be power, for a nation and a community to be great. The people who develop effective leadership are people of power, and they make a vital contribution in doing so. But the second thing Kennedy acknowledges is the importance of the prophets in our midst—whom people of power so often find pesky and annoying. These are the people who question the use of power. Some who raise such questions do so out of a desire for power. They wish they had it for themselves. These are not the people Kennedy is speaking about: rather, he draws attention to those who, for love of the nation, or perhaps especially the marginalized or alienated ones, raise their voices. This ‘disinterested’ questioning of power, of government and leadership, is just as vital, and indeed just as great.

These quotations, from the United States most loved President, are great words, from a beautiful park in a wonderful city. I want to remember them, and the place where I found them.

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