Lyndon Baines Johnson on Leadership

Lyndon Baines Johnson


Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted the American people to be comfortable and the world to be free. Unfortunately, substituting government action instead of enlisting people's cooperation to achieve a better life is not always the best means.

Lesson No. 1: Share a great vision.

Lyndon Baines Johnson dreamed of "A great society, a place where the meaning of man's life matches the marvels of man's labor" for American people and humanity. He envisioned that everybody would share the freedom and material success. When Lyndon B. Johnson was a principal and a teacher of a Mexican-American school in Texas, he told his students that they could achieve great things. Doris Kerwin Goodwin thought "The same neediness that made Johnson so eager for personal grandeur contributed to his desire to help the least advantaged."

Lesson No. 2: Have great mentors.

Robert Caro observed that Lyndon Baines Johnson had the ability to become friendly and deferential to people on the top that could help him. Rayburn, the Speaker of the House, and Richard Russell of the Senate proved to be useful role models that shared advice and showed him how to gather power. They were lonely men who loved Johnson's attention.

Lesson No. 3: Get support by showing "What's in it for me!"

When Lyndon Baines Johnson was the chief of state for two Congressmen at the same time! And a Congressman in his own right he would do everything possible for his constituents. He developed a wide range of contacts and never burnt his bridges to anybody. Lyndon B. Johnson paid attention and was always willing to compromise. Johnson got as many bills made into laws as did as he did because he sought cooperation. As Democratic Senate Majority Leader, he worked well with Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As President, Johnson showed that it was in the lawmaker's best interest to do so and appealing to their sense of importance. In getting Everett Dirksen, the Republican Senate Minority Leader to support a civil rights bill, he told him he would be regarded as the greatest leader of rights after Abraham Lincoln. Hubert H. Humphrey, his vice president observed that "Johnson knew how to woo people. He was a born political lover." Johnson appealed to the American people's sense of fair play and memory of JFK to get civil rights bills passed by Congress.

Lesson No. 4: Do everything possible

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a hard worker that set a demanding pace that few subordinates could match. From the time he was a Congressional aide to Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson would be among the first people on Capitol Hill and among the last to leave at night.

Johnson would campaign from dawn to late at night everywhere in Texas sparing neither himself nor his staff. He used a helicopter to reach every part of Texas as well as to draw attention to himself.

Lesson No. 5: Learn from your mistakes

In his first try for the U. S. Senate, he made the mistake of announcing his lead too early in the Democratic primary so that his opponents united to fix the election in somebody else's favor. After that, he never repeated that mistake ever again.

Lesson No. 6: Think long-term by creating the right image

Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to be president from the earliest time he knew. He knew that no southerner had been elected president since the Civil War. Whatever the occasion Johnson sought to project the right image to be as a Congressman, a Senator, and a President. He strove to be all things to all people while climbing the path to the presidency. Johnson walked a trapeze wire between being a friend of Civil Rights and of white supremacy in order to project an image that he was a national, not a regional or a southern leader. His hand in shaping the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was a masterpiece in which he convinced southerners he had minimized federal intrusion while convincing northerners he had delivered improvements.

Lesson No. 7: Government programs are no substitute for individual responsibility

Lyndon Baines Johnson with good intentions sought to have the government do what individuals were unwilling to do for themselves. Johnson in his "War Against Poverty" increased it with entitlement programs which encouraged people to rely on the government for support rather than using their own initiative to improve their lives.

The Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 allowed LBJ to move from financial aid to sending in more troops. It was the turning point of American intervention in Vietnam. Johnson sent half a million troops to Vietnam to do the fighting when the people there were unwilling to fight for their own freedom. America sacrificed treasure and blood to preserve freedom in a country where too many of the local people were unwilling to make the same sacrifice.

Lesson No. 8: Ambition before compassion

Like Abraham Lincoln, Johnson knew to do good you had to be in political office. He would do much good but he would never jeopardize his power base. He took the long view that it was better to overlook an occasional case of injustice in order to achieve the greater good.

Lesson No. 9: Show Compassion

Although Lyndon Baines Johnson exaggerated the poor circumstances of his early life, Johnson did know too many people that suffered from real poverty. Johnson, a son of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, made the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration the most successful of any state. Many college students were able to graduate thanks to the jobs provided by this program. Johnson felt his greatest achievement as a congressman was to bring electricity to his rural constituents that would lift the burdens of poverty. Johnson convinced Congress to pass his Medicare Program to provided health services for the elderly,

Lesson No. 10: Be entrepreneurial

Although Johnson pursued a career in government, he was also a successful rancher. He built a great media empire centered around Austin with his wife serving as the president of the corporation. By an amazing coincidence, the Federal Communications Commission licensed no competing television station in the area for a long time.

Lesson No. 11: End on a high note

When Lyndon Baines Johnson realized that he was unable to win the Vietnam Conflict, he knew he had forfeited his mandate to govern. Johnson would not drag the nation down in an effort to win reelection. Instead of uniting the nation, he had divided it.

On March 31, 968, Johnson told the nation he would not seek another term. His father had died of an attack in 19737 and Johnson had suffered one in 1955. He also knew Woodrow Wilson had suffered a stroke in the last years in the White House. Facing opposition, he decided not to end the same way. In retirement, Johnson tried to run his ranch the same way he ran the White House with a daily briefing and having aids write daily reports which he read each night the same way he had done in the White House.


Theodore White observed that "Johnson's instinct for power is as primordial as a salmon's going upstream to spawn." In the end, Johnson felt that he used the power he had garnered for the greater good, and perhaps he had done so.

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