I’m sitting here on a hot, steamy evening in Chennai, realizing it will be a while before I can go to sleep. It’s my first night here in India, and my clock is all out of whack, having arrived at 3:00 this morning after an eighteen hour flight. But it is okay. Part of my summer reading includes Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, and having just finished it on the plane, it’s a good opportunity to reflect. Caro’s book recounts one of the most compelling periods in presidential history—the transition from Kennedy to Johnson. Those of us who were alive during this moment remember that fateful day, Nov 22, 1963. We can remember exactly where we were. I was in math class at Emerald Junior High. Our teacher, an older and gracious woman, stepped out of the class for a moment, and stepped back in to announce President John F. Kennedy had just been shot. I was 13.
Caro recounts the passage of power when, in an instant, in a gunshot, the world of Washington turned upside down. I’ve tried to distill a number of leadership lessons from these 26 chapters. Here they are—
1-LEADERSHIP INVOLVES POLITICS
I often thought, as a young, naïve seminarian, that my leadership would be above politics. Until I became a pastor. And then I realized that so much of leadership involves reading the situation, mapping out your resistors, knowing how to persuade, knowing when to press and knowing when to back off, and learning how to rightfully use power. Lyndon Johnson was the ultimate political animal. And as a result, he mastered how to influence and persuade and manipulate. He could follow someone’s mind around, and get where it was going before the other person knew where it was going.
He knew what to watch. In a leadership course on the subject of politics, he might say
- watch their hands and their eyes. No matter what a man says, read his eyes. “The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he is not telling you; the most important thing he has to say is what he is trying not to say.” So don’t let a conversation end until you learn what he isn’t saying, until you ‘get it out of him’.
- map your resistors on both sides of the aisle
- pay attention and know where power resides. Johnson was a master at learning those who held “pieces of power”, and understood how to bring them to his side.
- realize that it is relationships, not issues, which matter most to people. Johnson knew who to invite to dinner, send a card to, or who to personally call. He understood the power of showing deference to age or affection to babies.
2-TIMING IS EVERYTHING
To be an effective leader, you have to know what time it is. Johnson knew that Kennedy’s death gave him a window of opportunity to push through bills that would have otherwise been stillborn. Discerning the season, he masterfully overcame resistance to civil rights and social reforms, launching his vision of a ‘great society’. The adoration and affection for a martyred young President needed to be seized. And when your timing is right, you can control momentum. He would say, “A measure must be sent to the Hill at exactly the right moment.” He had a gift for sensing in an instant, in the “cut and thrust and parry of debate”, when seizing and launching maneuvers will turn the tide. How often some of our great initiatives fail because we missed the moment, or saw the momentum shift because we were not paying attention to the mood of the congregation? Timing is everything. Momentum is not a mysterious mistress. It is a controllable fact of life. So catch the wave at its crest.
3-IF YOU ARE GOING TO LEAD—THAN BE DECISIVE
Part of what set Johnson apart was his strength of will. He had learned painfully that fear and doubt and hesitancy can immobilize and paralyze. He circled about the prize of the presidency in 1960, and it cost him a potentially successful bid. He recognized if he were to lead, if he were to master governance, he would have to become a decision maker. This requires that one overcome his fears. It demands both courage and a tenacious will. In comparing Johnson to Kennedy, Reston wrote: “President Kennedy’s eloquence was designed to make men think; President Johnson’s hammer blows are designed to make men act.” When Johnson decided to act, few things got in his way, be it in the Senate or in the White House.
The succession of power from Kennedy to Johnson was successful, in large part, due to Johnson’s determination to decide and act. In the moment Kennedy was gone, Johnson took charge. He had to if he was to lead. From having no influence, he suddenly was thrust to the pinnacle of power, and he knew what to do. His decisiveness enabled the nation to stay steady. His immediate decision to appoint the Warren Commission quieted suspicions that could have otherwise escalated into an international crisis. He acted upon Kennedy’s death and turned it into a martyr’s cause, enabling him to go after the programs he wanted to accomplish.
4-FIRST IMPRESSIONS MATTER
When Johnson was suddenly thrust on stage as the world’s most powerful man, he had to meet the world’s leaders. And this was dangerous ground. First impressions can influence the policy of nations. Khrushchev’s first impression of Kennedy as young and naïve helped lead to the Cuban Missile crisis. But Johnson could read men. He knew how to use his southern charm and hospitality, as well as a certain earthiness to disarm first time meetings. You only get one shot at first impressions, and part of the reason he kept America steady was that leaders realized that in Kennedy’s loss, it did not mean the US could be taken advantage of. First impressions revealed someone in command.
5-CHARACTER IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND GREAT
I am struck by Johnson’s commanding presence. He could fill a room with his large size and wave of arms. He knew where to look for power and how to use it. He had a genius for taking nothing jobs, nothing organizations, and making them into something big. He had a canny ability to see the bigger picture. At times, especially during his time as Vice-President, when his power was “castrated”, he exhibited great discipline and strength. He had great compassion for the poor, and used his position to go after social justice. In some crucial moments, especially immediately after Kennedy’s assassination, he was self possessed, humble, and calm. He made so many great decisions that led to a better living for many. He steadied the nation during a moment that things could have gotten badly out of hand.
But like so many presidents, Johnson was flawed—with flaws so deep that greatness seems to have eluded his legacy. He bought elections; he manipulated and coerced people. He used shouting, swearing, pounding on desktops—even pity–as tactics to get his way. As one put it, “The man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it.” He once boasted that he was a fox that could see the jugular in any man.
Johnson also held on to resentment. He allowed the hate between him and Bobby Kennedy to get the best of him at times. One can understand. He was the butt of cruel humor in the Kennedy White House. Most of the Kennedy men despised Johnson. He was comically humbled; called ‘Cornpone’. He was, in their minds, a satyr to Hyperion. And with a certain bitterness, Johnson would never forget, using power to insult and humiliate and hurt.
He ruthlessly grabbed for power, and the more he got, the more intoxicated he became with it; the more cavalier he became in its use. His ego pushed out anything he did not want to hear. Some of his decisions cost the lives of a number of my peers during the Vietnam War. As Caro concludes, the tragedy of Johnson was that the forces he held in check, had conquered himself, he wasn’t able to hold very long.
We might say it this way, that if Johnson had sought to truly follow after Christ and pursue the transformation possible—learned the language of God’s new world, bringing God’s wisdom to birth in his life—his presidency would have had the marks of historical greatness. And this is true of all presidents.