How to Lead in a Crisis — Lessons Inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson

July 20, 2012

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Imagine for a moment that you’re Lyndon B. Johnson, 37th vice president of the United States. For just over two years, you’ve had little power and little to do. Then suddenly President John F. Kennedy is killed, and you become president, with all of the mammoth responsibilities that entails. What would you do? Thanks to American journalist and award-winning author Robert Caro, we have a pretty good idea of what LBJ did, and how he did it. In his new book, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Caro demonstrates in meticulously researched detail how Johnson marshaled the powers of the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination.

So what can you learn about how to navigate your company through a crisis from LBJ, via Robert Caro?

1. Give the Impression of Stability

When things start to go wrong, between the media pontificating and your employees gossiping, there will be a lot of speculation as to what will happen next. If steps aren’t taken immediately to rectify the situation, that speculation can come true. Though the entire country was in shock over Kennedy’s assassination, and conspiracy rumors were flying within hours, the government went into action right away, letting the American public know that they had everything under control. Think about the image of Johnson taking oath on board Air Force One. He was appropriately serious, dressed in a dark suit, surrounded by other men in suits–showing the American public what they needed to see. Then Johnson made an incredibly smart move: he decided to work his hardest to keep Kennedy’s staff and cabinet members in place. The former VP and Kennedy’s people had had their differences, but Johnson went to each one and asked him to stay on. He knew he had to keep the country running as smoothly as possible. If you have great people in your organization, keep them on your team and on your side, even if they don’t always think like you.

2. Take Advantage of the Situation to Make Plans for the Future

There’s nothing like a crisis to bring out the best in your top people–and to rally them together for a common cause. Although at the time of crisis, multiple decisions may need to be made quickly, you’ll also want to identify a team of leaders who can look ahead to next steps so the company is better prepared for a crisis in the future. On the night after the assassination, Johnson convened three of his aides to his home and the men talked for hours about what needed to be done–basically planning the agenda for the rest of his presidency. Johnson could see that Kennedy’s legislative agenda had been stalled for months, so he and his advisors created strategies for moving forward.

3. Balance Planning with a Strategic and Decisive Leader

On the other hand, when you have too many leaders on board, it can be hard to come to a consensus and make decisions. And when there’s a lot at stake, decisions must be made quickly. So you’ll want to make sure you bring strategic, decisive leaders into your organization, which is why it’s important to have leaders who are both strategic and decisive in your organization. Who are the key leaders within your company? Does your president or CEO have a solid support system or advisers they can turn to in times of crisis? Having been in politics for 15 years, Johnson knew who he could trust and who would work with him to accomplish his goals. Yet he didn’t hesitate, even when he was alone. Caro relates that when Kennedy’s acting press secretary, Malcolm Kilduff, walked up to Johnson in the Dallas hospital and called him ‘Mr. President’ for the first time, Johnson started making decisions with great precision.

4. Take a Bird’s Eye View of the Crisis

Once something has happened, it’s already in the past. And you can’t change it. You need to move on. Although usually it takes time to develop clarity about a situation and learn from it when looking back, it’s important to have a level of detachment at the time, so your business can continue. Looking one more time at President Johnson, even Caro’s research doesn’t tell us exactly how LBJ felt personally about Kennedy’s death. But it’s entirely possible that Johnson’s two years of political and professional detachment from Kennedy may have made it easier to handle the crisis.

In his book, Caro quotes Johnson’s words about those days:

“Everything was in chaos. We were all spinning around and around, trying to come to grips with what had happened, but the more we tried to understand it, the more confused we got. We were like a bunch of cattle caught in the swamp. There is but one way to get the cattle out of the swamps. And that is for the man on the horse to take the lead, to assume command, to provide direction. I was that man.”

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