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The Visionary Leadership of LBJ and MLK

Written by: on February 17, 2021

There are moments when a leader whose vision, positional authority, relationships, and style all converge to accomplish something that seemed to be impossible. Such moment emerged as Lyndon Johnson stepped into the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. While the country was reeling emotionally from Kennedy’s death, it still faced great challenges and Johnson proved in many ways to be up for the task.

Two of Kennedy’s top priorities, tax cuts and civil rights, had been hopelessly stalled in Congress with little chance of advancing Kennedy’s agenda. Johnson made Kennedy’s domestic agenda the focus of his first months in the White House. Using his command of the legislative process, his relational style, and the friendships he had on Capitol Hill, Johnson mapped out a strategy, a series of actions that would be known as the Great Society.[1]

Kennedy’s team, who Johnson initially kept in place, advised him to move first on civil rights. Johnson decided to deal with the tax cuts first. Based on his instincts and experience, Johnson believed that “a straightforward charge for civil rights would prevent both the civil rights bill and the tax cut from succeeding.”[2] It is understandable that those working solely on civil rights and those without direct access to Johnson’s thought process might have interpreted Johnson’s strategy as unsympathetic to the cause of civil rights. On the contrary, Johnson leveraged his strengths to chart a path that ultimately accomplished both before he accepted the Democratic nomination to run for president in 1964.

Simon Walker does not examine Johnson in “The Undefended Leader,” but he does look at another key leader in the Johnson era, Martin Luther King, Jr. Walker lifts us King as an example of the Visionary (RSX) strategy. The Visionary strategy is dynamic back-stage leadership, a style that can inspire people move beyond the status quo by pointing to a hopeful future.[3] Walker suggests the Visionary strategy is often used when one lacks traditional access to authority.[4] However, with regard to Johnson’s leadership in his first months in the White House, one can see the Visionary strategy at work as well.

Johnson was in a difficult position in November 1963. He had the dual challenge of leading the country through a difficult time while also suddenly emerging as his party’s presumptive presidential nominee. He was an outsider with regard to Kennedy’s team. And while he had the positional authority as President, his relationship with Congress was decidedly different than when he was a member there. In addition, not having been elected to the presidency in 1960, but instead serving as Vice-President, he had no real mandate from the electorate except insofar as to preserve the Kennedy legacy. While it may have seemed like Johnson could assume a Commanding posture similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days, Johnson had more back-stage work to do in order to earn trust, build consensus, and advance the mission.

Just as King could captivate an audience with his ability to paint a picture of a preferred future, Johnson used the power of stories to help articulate his argument for civil rights. This is a skill of the Visionary strategy whereby the “leader sees herself as a storyteller or dramatist whose job is to create, with her audience, a world that is captivating, robust, and compelling.”[5] It was in these stories that Johnson was able to help people recognize the difference between the world as it was and the world as it ought to be.

Johnson and King both worked from their positions of influence to advance the cause of civil rights in the USA. King may have believed at times that Johnson was not working fast enough and Johnson may have thought King was moving too fast, but each effectively used a Visionary strategy in leadership to do what was his to do and the country was able to take a step forward as a result. Neither Johnson nor the Great Society were perfect, and the success his presidency achieved domestically certainly has to be weighed against the consequences of his foreign policy. But Johnson’s leadership following Kennedy’s death, as well as the political sacrifices he made for the sake of Civil Rights, demonstrate how he may have been the right leader at the right time.

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 309.

[2] Ibid, 313.

[3] Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 192.

[4] Ibid, 255.

[5] Ibid, 256.

About the Author

mm

John McLarty

Husband. Dad. Pastor. Play a little golf.

9 responses to “The Visionary Leadership of LBJ and MLK”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Visionary leadership can be extremely powerful when it’s used effectively. Just a thought, but do you think that visionary leadership stems from the people or the leader? What do you think the difference would be if the leader used the collective vision of the people as the forerunner to his or her own vision?

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Maybe it’s both. Sometimes a person gets a vision from God, a platform to share that vision, and the opportunity to move people in a new direction. Sometimes the vision is given to a people and they raise up a leader (or one emerges) who guides them. I think it’s about the moment. In the case of civil rights, LBJ took a different path than JFK. (It’s worth noting that JFK was making virtually no progress- in part because JFK’s team was mostly northerners and did not have the relational credibility with southern lawmakers to get a deal done.) LBJ initially had to balance between working with JFK’s team while also leveraging his relationships with the south. MLK did not cast the initial vision for what would become the civil rights movement, but he did leverage his role, influence, intelligence, and strategic ability to emerge as a leader.

  2. mm Jer Swigart says:

    I’m wondering if there was any mention in your biography about how Johnson also had to tend to an America that was grieving. There were the legislative priorities as you spell out so well in your piece, and there was a deeply human priority as well. I’m wondering about best practices for leaders navigating goals and objectives while also prioritizing the humanness of our teams and those within our care.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      Goodwin doesn’t spend much time in this particular book about Johnson as “comforter-in-chief.” She’s got another biography solely on Johnson, so I expect there may be more there. She does talk about Johnson’s deep admiration for FDR and taking an initial approach from Roosevelt’s playbook to demonstrate a strong and confident presence that would give assurance and comfort to the people that the country was in capable hands. My take on that era is that people generally looked to their political leaders to be competent and steady, but not necessary to serve as grief counselors.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    John,
    Few remember that we were in the heat of war at home and abroad. Johnson had to maneuver not only the the civivl rights unrest but also the growing unrest surrounding the peak of the Vietnam war and the Tet Offensive.

    • mm John McLarty says:

      You’re absolutely right. Had I had more space, I would have contrasted Johnson’s approach and success domestically with his foreign policy. In short, the strategy that helped him win with Congress did not translate in his handling of the conflicts you referenced. In fact, he found the two incompatible. He believed if he had leaned in on foreign policy, it would have cost him the Great Society. Goodwin would write- both in this book and her other biography exclusive about Johnson- about his deep regret and sadness about not being able to achieve his objective in southeast Asia. It was a big reason why he did not seek the nomination again in 1968.

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        It seems that it is important for a leader to recognize their limits of influence and to deduce where their energies are best placed to move forward. With the example of Johnson, it is clear those choices come with deep regrets. I think it’s interesting that he elected not to run rather than run and try and implement positive change in foreign policy. Do you think that wisdom, a sense of defeat, or something else, since only a handful of presidents have chosen not to run for re-election?

  4. mm Chris Pollock says:

    I hope so, John. There’s so much optimism in your post. To be a leader, a position guilty of causing such covetousness. I hope so, that both Johnson and MLK are good. I just don’t know if I can comment on their leadership knowing only some of the history of the time.

    Visionary leadership, full of eccentricity and passion and ambition and lovely sounds, can create a super following and fan base. I’d like to know the truth. I don’t think I can comment too much on the character of those who’ve won such a place as ‘the big leaders’ have in popular history.

    What do you think about ‘hope’ for truth as we learn of the history we are given by authors and teachers?

  5. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    I’m wondering how you have seen stories consistently used over time that move beyond the cliche.

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