5 Everyday Lessons From LBJ

2 min read ·


The nation's 36th president, Lyndon Johnson, offers five tips you can use every single day to make your business stronger.

For the past 30 years, author Robert Caro has been working on a five-volume biography of one man: President Lyndon Johnson. The fourth volume, The Passage of Power, came out this month.

So far, the tomes run more than 3,000 pages. President Bill Clinton reviewed the latest installment in The New York Times.

You probably don't think of LBJ as an entrepreneur, but any list of the most impactful political leaders of the past 100 years would have to include him. Moreover, as a politician, I think Johnson put into practice the Harvard Business School definition of entrepreneurship: "the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled." That definition is near and dear to me, as well, as Jon Burgstone and I wrote at length about why this definition is so well thought-out in our recent book, Breakthrough Entrepreneurship.

So with that in mind, here are five leadership lessons from LBJ for today's entrepreneurs:

1. Network, even when it might seem counterintuitive.

LBJ was a classic networker. When he first came to Washington in 1937, he lived in a large boarding house with other members of Congress. And they shared a communal bathroom. Wanting to know as many fellow legislators as he could, he pantomimed getting to ready for work multiple times each day, figuring that he had an opportunity to build relationships by standing next to fellow legislators as he brushed his teeth and shaved, over and over again. He lived up to the true entrepreneur's mantra: It's not who you know; it's who you get to know.

2. Think big, and pick big goals.

From the passage of the Civil Rights Act, to the Great Society, to even the Vietnam War, it's hard to dispute that Johnson was a hugely impactful leader. This was not a president who played small ball, or who devoted his time to less school uniforms. You don't have to agree with his ideology to acknowledge that while he only lived to be 64, he spent his time on this earth working toward really big goals.

3. Strive for balance.

Okay, when historians think of LBJ they likely don't think of "balance." But clearly his family was important to him. Interestingly, Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson named both of their daughters so that everyone in their family would have the initials "LBJ."

4. Maintain focus, and don't split your attention.

Here, LBJ's story is a cautionary tale for modern leaders. Regardless of what anyone thinks today of the Vietnam War and the Great Society, the United States simply couldn't pursue both of these goals at once. It's probably the same thing for your business: Pick the few things you really need to accomplish, and do them. Don't divide your attention.

5. Know when to quit.

Johnson became president upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and was elected in his own right in 1964. But by 1968, the Vietnam War was immensely unpopular, and Johnson nearly lost the New Hampshire primary to Senator Eugene McCarthy. Days later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy joined the campaign, and Johnson announced he would not seek reelection. Things didn't work out too well for Johnson's party—Richard Nixon won—but at least he knew to get off the stage when there was no chance he could win.

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