We’ve been asked by many of our customers for periodic, no-nonsense emails with just-in-time information for managers and knowledge workers on how organizations work. This is our 53rd issue and we hope you enjoy it. Past issues are available on our website.
What We're Reading
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
by Robert Caro
Knopf, May 2012
This actually is a review of 3 stories. We start with commencement exercises at Colby College in Waterville, Maine on May 20. I have 3 degrees and yet this was my first commencement. It was very moving; probably because it was my son's and Colby looks like a storybook New England college. It will be 200 years old next year so there's a lot of history there. It's a gem of a liberal arts school where the professors actually spend time giving the students a lot of feedback on their assignments before they turn them in so they can re-work them and learn more if they choose. They have an old-fashioned goal; teach students how to think and learn how to learn.
The commencement speaker was The Right Honorable Tony Blair. His speech shared seven lessons in life. The students were pleased with it; I thought it was a bit trite. After reading commencement speeches for years, I've decided the best ones come from the heart like the famous one Steve Jobs gave at Stanford where he admitted he was dying. Mr. Blair also had the bad luck to follow the senior chosen by his class to address them, Samuel Deeran of Falmouth, Maine.
Introducing himself as The Right Honorable Samuel Deeran, who said he asked for the same perks as Mr. Blair (a private jet, personal play date with George W. Bush) he told the story of his college years. He left Colby in his sophomore year to try to make it as a stand-up comic in Los Angeles. He was broke within 2 weeks and had to take a job as a telemarketer. He very quickly learned that while he had thought he was bored with college life, he realized he had a lot more to learn and returned to Colby that Jan Term, graduating with his class and earning this honor as senior class speaker. His message was don't be afraid to fail. While Lesson # 7 from Tony Blair was the same, it just didn't ring as true as from Sam. As Sam told the class, failure is a way to success. I just cannot think of a better way to send off a college graduate than that.
And at the same time I was reading The Passage to Power and the irony of this lesson not being learned by Lyndon Johnson and it's consequences on all of us played out throughout the book. Lyndon Johnson was a complicated man but at the heart of his life was one fear, the fear of failure and of public humiliation. This stemmed from his father's mid-life business failure and the subsequent humiliation of his family in the small town of Johnson City, Texas. It was quite a come down for a once successful man who was also a Texas State Legislator and as a result, Lyndon was determined to make something of himself. He had few choices in his youth and could not even attend the fine University of Texas at Austin, instead having to go to what he described as the poor man's school of Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
Lyndon Johnson did not become president in 1960 because he did not declare his candidacy until it was too late. Why not? If he didn't declare he was a candidate, he couldn't be defeated. He couldn't fail. His pathological fear of being humiliated caused him to wait too long, to even turn down opportunities to give speeches in key states. He stayed in Washington doing the 'business of the Senate' and was completely out-smarted by the Kennedys. Caro emphasizes in all the books that Johnson spent his entire life working to become president and 1960 was the year he was to run. So for him to lose that prize through his paralysis of action throughout 1958-59 is fascinating to read. Instead, he accepted the Vice Presidency and was completely humiliated and powerless. Vice Presidents at that time were not the powerful figures we sometimes view them as today. And there was a chance he would have been dropped from the ticket in 1964 given the investigations closing in on his financial dealings. We forget that big money and crony capitalism in politics is not new.
You can also read into Johnson's very early choices on Viet Nam the same fear of failure: he didn't want to 'lose' another country to Communism. Most of his Viet Nam policies and decisions will be covered in the next book but the early ones begin at the end of this book and are a result of this key character flaw as well.
Very few historical figures have been covered as thoroughly as Johnson because of the massive amount of data left for Caro to research and his ability to write it so well. I've read all of Caro's books on Lyndon Johnson and if you haven't, start with the first. Why take the time to read about Johnson? Caro ends this book with the reason. Much of the cynicism in politics (and decreased respect of presidents) began with Johnson's actions in the presidency and those actions are a direct result of his personality and life experiences. And his life is a history lesson of the depression, World War II, Civil Rights, the Kennedy assassination, the Great Society and Viet Nam. In short, they are the history of our country. They are written so well that you cannot believe this author could possibly keep all these details straight and make them interesting. It is a tragedy of Shakespearian dimensions and the repercussions resonate today.
The lack of 'victory' in Viet Nam was one reason some wanted to go to war in Iraq. And yes, there were protesters in Waterville, Maine that Sunday. One was arrested. More poignantly, some faculty and students wore homemade armbands with peace symbols. So the decisions that Lyndon Johnson made in 1964 reverberated forward to a commencement ceremony in 2012 in a small town in Maine.
Free Everything DiSC Webinar April 26
On a lighter note, I am offering a free webinar on how to integrate individual leadership development within an Appreciative Inquiry or SOAR-5-I process on June 7th at 9am PT. With Inscape Publishing's new Everything DiSC Work of Leader™ profile, it is now possible to give individual feedback on the actual skills needed at the various steps of an AI 4-D or SOAR 5-I process. I will walk you through this step-by-step in the webinar.
Can't attend? Contact me by email for the paper I've written on the process or check the website for it later. This is a fantastic new tool. If you want to chat with me about how you might use it in your own strategic planning work or AI work, or even in just a team building exercise, I'd be glad to help you think through it.