I’ve been listening to coverage of Ted Kennedy’s death this week. I didn’t know a lot about the man; and to be honest I still don’t. A lot of what I know is based on sensational headlines, that weren’t always flattering (e.g. Chappaquiddick).

But as is often the case, the posthumous news is more endearing. Somewhere between the two is probably the real story.

Perhaps his faults, publicly displayed after the Chappaquiddick incident, contributed to him not becoming a U.S. President. The irony is he may have done more for the U.S. as a long serving (since 1962) member of the Senate than he could have as President. Sometimes the worst of failures can spark a positive force. His commitment and contributions to Civil Rights and Universal Health Care are undeniable. These issues continue to challenge the U.S. They are not ‘easy answer’ issues; they require a long term commitment which in turn requires empathy, vision, optimism, and perseverance. These are important ingredients for leadership on hard issues.

I’ll hand it to him – he stuck with it.

A story that stuck with me was of a father of a soldier who died in the Iraq war and how Mr. Kennedy worked with him and others to change the circumstances in Iraq so more soldiers had the protection they needed and fewer would be injured or killed. The father told how Mr. Kennedy accompanied him to Arlington on two occasions to visit his son’s grave and provided the advice to go early in the morning so he could have a ‘private moment in a public place.’

I was struck by Mr. Kennedy’s empathy. I wondered how many private mornings he had spent in Arlington by his brothers’ graves. I imagine he connected the tragedies he’d known to what this father was facing. What was also impressive was his doing something to prevent future tragedies. He fought to help protect soldiers fighting a war he did not support.

As a leader, you don’t abandon your constituents, even if you don’t support their perspectives – you protect them. I certainly don’t agree with many of the things Ted Kennedy said or did, but I admire his commitment to issues that matter a great deal and for his service to the public.

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