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.
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.” 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. Walker suggests the Visionary strategy is often used when one lacks traditional access to authority. 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.” 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.
 Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018,) 309.
 Ibid, 313.
 Simon Walker, “The Undefended Leader,” (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2010,) 192.
 Ibid, 255.
 Ibid, 256.