Case Study 1: Wise Leadership During the Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Tuomo Peltonen


This chapter presents the first of the case studies examining the processes related to the existence of wisdom in strategic decision-making. The situation explored is one the most well-known incidents during the Cold War: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Of particular interest here is the conduct of the US president John F. Kennedy in the midst of heightened uncertainty and security risks over the discovery of the installation of nuclear missiles in the island of Cuba. Relying on the published transcripts of the conversations between the members of the crisis group, the chapter seeks to demonstrate the discussions, deliberations and judgement of President Kennedy in the unfolding of events during the crisis. A detailed description of the different phases of this crisis provides gives rise to a more general interpretation regarding the elements of wisdom in John F. Kennedy’s leadership during the confrontation. His ability to read the situation without prejudice, to try to understand the motives and fears of the opposing side as well as the willingness to learn from the failures of the preceding Bay of Pigs operation helped to circumvent the escalation of the crisis into a major military conflict. Apart from these capabilities, it was Kennedy’s insistence on the foremost ethical principle of trying to avoid the use of military power at any cost that proved to be the critical commitment that helped him to navigate through several more extreme opinions in the group and among the army. In this sense, Kennedy embodiment of a moral absolute could be seen as manifesting a case of philosophical wisdom in leadership action.


Cuban Missile Crisis John F. Kennedy Political leadership Wisdom 


  1. Allison, G. T., & Zelikow, P. (1999). Essence of decision: Explaining the Cuban missile crisis. New York: Longman.Google Scholar
  2. Board, P. F. I. A. (1990). # 4 declassified in part per E.O.13526.Google Scholar
  3. Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., & Campbell, A. (2013). Think again: Why good leaders make bad decisions and how to keep it from happening to you. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.Google Scholar
  4. Hansen, M. (2013, November 22). How John F Kennedy changed decision-making for us all. Harvard Business Review. (read 1.4. 2018).
  5. Hillstrom, L. (2015). The Cuban missile crisis. Michigan: Omnigraphics.Google Scholar
  6. Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascos. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.Google Scholar
  7. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The world on the brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. (read 1.4.2018).
  8. May, E., & Zelikow, P. (2002). The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban missile crisis concise edition. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
  9. Reynolds, M. (1998). Reflection and critical reflection in management learning. Management Learning, 29(2), 183–200. Scholar
  10. Staw, B. M. (1981). The escalation of commitment to a course of action. Academy of Management Review, 6(4), 577–587. Scholar
  11. Stern, S. M. (2005). The week the world stood still: Inside the secret Cuban missile crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Stern, S. M. (2012). The Cuban missile crisis in American memory: Myths versus reality. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tuomo Peltonen
    • 1
  1. 1.School of BusinessAalto UniversityHelsinkiFinland

Personalised recommendations