Lessons from LBJ: Why makes LBJ unique?

A year ago, I read Robert Caro’s The Years of LBJ. The four books have changed how I look at politics, organizations, startups, and careers. Tyler Cowen calls these “quake books” – books that shake the foundation of how you look at life.

Lyndon Johnson was the 36th president of the United States. He oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War, the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the broader “Great Society” legislation. Before that, he was the vice president under JFK, the Senate Majority and Minority Leader (Senator from Texas), and the representative for Texas’ 10th congressional district in the House.

Ever since I read the books, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of memos on particular themes from the series. These include tactics that Lyndon Johnson used to accelerate his learning in an organization, how he gained leverage by became a bottleneck for others, and the storytelling techniques he used to capture voter attention. Every Thursday is a forcing function for me to do just that.

When I was brainstorming ideas about this project with my friends, most of them had a similar question: “Why is LBJ more special than other presidents?”

The story of Lyndon Johnson is the not interesting because Lyndon Johnson was a US president.

The story of Lyndon Johnson is interesting because he was not only from one of the poorest parts of the United States, he was from one of the poorest families in one of the poorest parts of the United States. The story of Lyndon Johnson is interesting because when he was a kid and was working as a laborer on one of the first roads that connected the Hill Country of Texas to the rest of the state, he said his then colleagues – other kids – “By God, I’ll be President some day!” It was a path that seemed impossible to plot.

But Lyndon Johnson plotted that path.

Whatever he did – and whatever he did not do – was all in service of this ultimate goal of his. A goal that he didn’t reveal to anyone. It’s difficult to plan your way to the Presidency. There are too many confounding variables. Being directionally correct helps, but you need to be at the right place at the right time.

But Lyndon Johnson planned his way to the Presidency.

It is this meticulous planning that allows us to develop a unique playbook for anyone is young, ambitious, and willing to play the long game. Whatever the controversies surrounding LBJ, I am willing to learn and steal from anyone who is good at anything.

And LBJ was good at a few, very important things.