Five Lessons on Power From the Life of Lyndon Johnson
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
The life of Lyndon B. Johnson was a whirlwind, as were the years of his leadership in public office. No man wanted to be remembered as a great leader more than LBJ. He didn’t just want public approval he needed it. As Robert Caro thoroughly chronicles in his incredible biography series The Years of Lyndon Johnson, LBJ’s life was driven by his ferocious need to be remembered and his relentless pursuit of power.
With his ascent to the Oval Office, LBJ became the most powerful man in the free world. With power in hand, LBJ often used it as a force for good. Through his leadership, LBJ was able to engineer the greatest advancement in Civil Rights since the Civil War. However, despite his success in civil rights and social reform, LBJ's legacy will always be clouded by the Vietnam war. LBJ’s lack of leadership nearly tore the country apart and drove his decision not to run for a second term in 1968.
Putting his divided legacy aside, there are plenty of valuable lessons about power that can be taken away from his life and career. Below are five of my favorite lessons I’ve taken away from reading over 2,750 pages of Robert Caro’s work on LBJ.
Watch their hands, watch their eyes. Lyndon Johson once told his staff “Read eyes. No matter what a man is saying to you, it’s not as important as what you can read in his eyes.” LBJ understood the importance of reading between the lines and used this skill to great success in getting what he wanted out of a conversation. LBJ believed that the most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you. He said “The most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say.” If you’re able to read between the lines and determine what’s important to the person across from you, you’ll be at a huge advantage in negotiations.
Look for potential in areas that others disregard as having no potential. One of the most impressive aspects of LBJ’s creativity was the ability to look at an institution that had limited power—an institution that no one else thought of as having the potential for power—and see in it that there was actually the potential for substantial power. Once he discovered this potential, LBJ worked tirelessly to transform an institution into something with power, and in doing so he was able to reap substantial power for himself.
No matter how much time another person is willing to put into something, be willing to put in more. In the case of LBJ, no matter how much time a man was willing to spend arguing with him, he was willing to spend more. While LBJ’s attitude on arguing isn’t one I subscribe to, a broader lesson can be taken away here. If you're truly driven to win or succeed at something, you need to be willing to outlast every last person in whatever it is you’re doing.
When in doubt, mind your own business. LBJ once said that “the graveyard of good intentions is filled with the remains of individuals and organizations who nosed into affairs which were not their own.” I’m sure we can all recall times in our lives where, despite our good intentions, we should have left well enough alone. While there are situations where it’s appropriate to step into the affairs of others, it’s important to weigh the potential outcome of your decision to get involved before you do so. Taking an extra step to evaluate whether your involvement is warranted will often save you in the long run.
While pragmatism is essential to the pursuit of power and the achievement of goals, so is idealism. Pragmatism and idealism are often put at odds, but great leaders are able to combine elements of both in their lives. In order to be a great leader, you need to be able to think in terms of larger ends. In today’s world, with the increasing importance of social impact, the best leaders are able to align themselves with something greater than themselves. This holds true both in politics and business.
If you liked this essay, you'll love my weekly newsletter. You can sign up below.