Keeping President John F. Kennedy’s Vision of New Generations of Proactive and Innovative Leadership Alive

By Joe Colletti | November 20, 2017 |

JFK’s dream of new cycles of leadership is about to cross a critical threshold. The need for innovative and proactive leadership is greater than ever. What would JFK think of this new cycle, and how can we keep his dream alive of a new generation of leadership that can do for the world what he proclaimed Albert Thomas did for the city of Houston?

On November 21, 1963, the evening before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy (JFK) gave a speech in Houston during a dinner in honor of Congressmember Albert Thomas.  Thomas had spent the previous 27 years bringing Houston into a new era of influence through his innovative and proactive leadership.  

President Kennedy seized on the importance of that moment to look forward to the next 27- year cycle of leadership, exploring what the U.S. might look like in 1990.  What would proactive and innovative leaders in that next cycle face? What would success look like for them?

I was not a part of that cycle of community leadership that ended in 1990. I began my role as a community leader just as that cycle ended. The need for innovation and proactive leadership did not, of course, end in 1990. The cycle of leadership from 1990 to 2017 has shown itself to be ripe with creative leadership and incredible challenges.

JFK’s dream of new cycles of leadership is about to cross a critical threshold.  January 1st is the beginning of a new cycle of 27 years—a fourth cycle.  The need for innovative and proactive leadership is greater than ever. What would JFK think of this new cycle, and how can we keep his dream alive of a new generation of leadership that can do for the world what he proclaimed Albert Thomas did for the city of Houston?

First Cycle: 1936 to 1963

The first 27-year cycle was between 1936 and 1963 and focused on Thomas. JFK stated that Thomas had “a vision of the modern-day Houston” when he was first elected 27 years earlier in 1936 at age 38. There were “those who were opposed to progress and growth, who preferred to defy or ignore the forces of change.” However, Thomas and supporters prevailed as a force of change because of their “ability to recognize the trends and needs of the future beginning in 1936. As a result, the city experienced great achievements that brought social and economic prosperity. 

Perhaps the greatest achievement concerned space. JFK declared that Thomas 

“has helped steer this country to its present eminence in space next month when the United States of America fires the largest booster in the history of the world into space for the first time, giving us the lead, fires the largest payroll–payload–into space giving us the lead. It will be the largest payroll, too! And who should know that better than Houston.”

He further stated that

“the United States next month will have a leadership in space which it wouldn’t have without Albert Thomas. And so will this city. He has been a stickler for efficiency in Government, but he has also been for progress and growth.” 

Second Cycle: 1963 to 1990

JFK then shifted to the next 27 years to come—the period between 1963 and 1990. After noting other achievements in trade and manufacturing to the attentive crowd, he asserted

“we dare not look back now, if 27 years from now, in the year 1990 a new generation of Americans is to say that we, too, looked forward.” 

He stated that if the country was to prosper, we must heed to the vision of “a new generation of Americans.” He encouraged others to do what Thomas did and create a vision for the next 27 years. He challenged the people living in 1963 to think proactively about the social and economic needs of those who would be living in 1990 and beyond.

He challenged them by helping them envision the future. He predicted several social needs by 1990. He declared “In 1990, for example, this Nation will need three times as much electric power as it has today, four times as much water” and  “In 1990 the need for national and State parks and recreation areas will triple, reaching a total very nearly the size of Indiana.” 

He also declared that 

“In 1990 your sons, daughters, grandsons, and grandchildren will be applying to the colleges of this State in a number three times what they do today. Our airports will serve five times as many passenger miles. We will need housing for a hundred million more people, and many times more doctors and engineers and technicians than we are presently producing.”

He added, “In 1990 the age of space will be entering its second phase.”

Some of the words that he used to encourage the people that were listening to his speech came from the Old Testament. He declared,

“‘Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions,’  the bible tells us; and ‘where there is no vision, the people perish.’”

JFK also declared that Thomas, at age 65, was old enough to dream dreams and still young enough to see visions. 

President Kennedy pushed the leaders of his generation to see into the future.  He looked as far as 1990.  I think what came after 1990 might have surprised and encouraged him.

Third Cycle: 1990 to 2017

By 1990, I had been deeply influenced by the writings of JFK and other world and national leaders that helped me dream dreams and see visions about the purging of poverty. I consider myself a product of JFK’s vision of new generations of leadership—the third cycle of the past 27-years between 1990 and 2017. 

During that time, I have been involved with working to end homelessness, an extreme form of poverty in the United States. I have had the opportunity to work alongside local and national leaders, together seeing unprecedented decreases in homelessness locally and nationally. 

These decreases are a result of the tireless labor of researching, promoting, implementing, and evaluating evidence-based and promising practices that were not prevalent prior to 1990 and are not yet fully practiced today. They were the fruit of proactive and innovative leaders who were willing to break new ground and try new ways of making change happen.  

During his acceptance speech as the party’s nominee at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, JFK told the crowd that they were standing “on the edge of a New Frontier . . . of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.” He also told them that “The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.” He immediately stated

“Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

During this speech, he also challenged everyone by saying “I’m asking each of you to be pioneers of this New Frontier.” He added

“My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age — to the stout in spirit, regardless of Party, to all who respond to the scriptural call: “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be [thou] dismayed.”

I believe the courage that we need is the courage to always stand at the edge of that new frontier—to think and act in ways that use what we have learned from the past and to build on those lessons learned—to innovate and dream new dreams. That is why I believe we need to continue to help implement the evidence-based and promising practices developed during the last cycle to end homelessness and to encourage others to do the same.

The third cycle is going to end this year, since it was in November of 1963 that JFK described the first two cycles of new generations of leadership. 

A fourth cycle is about to begin and we need to keep the dream of new generations of innovative leadership alive. 

Fourth Cycle: 2017 – 2044

When the next cycle of 27 years begins at the end of this year, I will still be old enough to dream dreams and young enough to see visions.  Like JFK, I believe that we hold in our “mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty” and if we “cannot help the many who are poor, (we) cannot save the few who are rich.” 

Some of us have dreamed a dream of ending homelessness in the United States and have engaged in innovations like Housing First and Rapid Rehousing to push toward that dream becoming a reality.

As a member of the third cycle of generational leadership, I may be alive in 2044 but my intense involvement will have ended by then. I want to make sure I can help others who are coming into leadership catch the vision of how they can move change forward within a city or community. 

Becoming a leader necessitates being proactive and innovative. Being proactive means initiating something that others will join in. Being innovative means creating or doing something that is not the same as what was previously known or done. We need leaders who are able to recognize the trends and needs of the future and think actively and imaginatively about how to address those needs.

Recent proactive and innovative activities regarding homelessness have included the creation of tiny houses and recycling huge shipping containers by stacking them and designing them into multi-residential housing characteristic of apartment complexes. It has also included redesigning and re-regulating temporary housing to remove and lower the barriers that previously screened out persons who were homeless because of a disability, prejudice, or not wanting to be separated from a partner.  

We need to continue to push forward like this with every kind of social change that we find ourselves engaging in this fourth cycle of leadership.

Becoming a Force of Change 

Applying the words of JFK to the present time, purging extreme poverty whether that is homelessness or other challenges can happen if we dare not look back now. Twenty-seven years from now in the year 2044 a new generation of Americans needs to be able to say that we, too, looked forward.

Thus, the first steps for emerging leaders to purge extreme poverty during the next 27 years in the United States involves becoming “a force of change” by looking forward. 

Many leaders within the generation of the past 27 years became a force of change by looking forward, innovating and implementing evidence-based and promising practices that resulted in many cities and counties experiencing a decrease in overall homelessness among some subpopulations within their jurisdictions. 

This was a shift away from merely managing homelessness by providing emergency assistance such as meals and shelter towards solving homelessness by providing permanent housing with supportive social services as quickly as possible. 

A new generation of leadership can learn how to take us forward by understanding the successes and solutions to date and then improving and innovating upon them. 

Three Sources for Learning about What Is Working

No matter what challenge this new generation of leaders engages, documenting and sharing successes is key to moving forward. In the realm of solving homelessness, where I have spent most of my time, many successes and solutions to date have been documented and shared online, including those that came as a result of being proactive and innovative. Here are three sources:

  1. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
  2. The National Alliance to End Homelessness; and
  3. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Organizations in other countries have done the same. Homeless Hub in Canada is one and FEANTSA is another. 

There are many local coalitions, committees, commissions, congregations, and civic consortiums focusing on next steps toward ending local homelessness. It is within these groups that the persons who have provided the past leadership and those who will be providing the future leadership are engaging one another about what was learned to solve homelessness. 

Lessons learned, however, do not always get the full attention of those involved. Maximizing the impact of lessons learned engaging any social change involves letting things go that were not working and furthering those things that are working.  To fuel this impact we need places where an ongoing and free exchange of experiences can be shared about what has worked and what is working now—where a new generation of leadership can meet each other, share stories, inspire each other, and create more change faster.

The Greatest Generation of Leaders Ever Seen

The process of merging the generation of leadership that I have been a part of for the past 27 years with the new generation of leadership that will evolve over the next 27 years should include looking closely at the lessons learned to date in order to improve on and innovate from them. By looking both to the past and the future, avoiding reactive measures, and anticipating with creativity new and unexplored answers to social challenges, we could see the emergence of the greatest generation of leadership we have ever seen—and ending homelessness could be just one of their achievements.

How are you engaging in the handoff to new proactive innovators? Comment below.


  1. Courtney Pene on November 21, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Very inspiring read.
    Very inspiring read.

  2. Micheál(Me-haul)O'Leary on November 29, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    I was Mayor and Council
    I was Mayor and Council Member of the City of Culver City for 8 years, and I am now running for Board of Equalization, District #3, in June of next. I am the next generation of leadership in the United States of America. You can either join me or please step aside.