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How LBJ used power and leadership

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Understanding the distinction between power and leadership—how leaders use power to accomplish things—is the work of historian Robert Caro. In his books on President Lyndon Johnson, Caro shows that power doesn’t corrupt so much as it reveals: When you amass enough power, it reveals what you’ve really wanted all along.

In Johnson’s case, what he wanted was a decent life for everybody. Growing up dirt poor in Texas, picking cotton and later becoming a schoolteacher, Johnson tried everything to release his students from poverty.

Johnson had a knack for both power and leadership. He knew how to accumulate power. He also wanted to change the world, and in civil rights and the War on Poverty, he did change it.

Here’s how:
  • He used any means. To gain power, Johnson cozied up to the Southerners in power, which required opposing civil rights. So, he voted against every civil rights bill for 20 years. Once in power himself, however, Johnson’s first act was to pass a civil rights bill.

    Johnson befriended powerful Southerners by becoming a “professional son” to lonely old politicos in high places, working overtime with them and inviting them to meals.

  • He was absolutely clear-eyed: no delusions. Johnson never fooled himself on vote counts. He knew that liberals couldn’t win everything they wanted on civil rights, so he pushed for voting rights, figuring that the law could be expanded later.

  • He found common ground. After spending months in 1957 trying to move a civil rights bill, Johnson went home. There, he reasoned that, although he could never win Southerners’ votes, he could win Westerners’… if he could help them build a dam they wanted. Johnson threw himself into building the dam, trading it for their votes supporting the Voting Rights Act.
Bottom line: Having a great moral purpose is a familiar concept in the public sector but still a novelty in business. To leverage your power, you need a cause greater than yourself.

—Adapted from “Lessons in Power: Lyndon Johnson Revealed,” Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review.

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