Sunday, October 7, 2012

Be Magnanimous When Subordinates go for the Power Grab

Behind the scenes of the Kennedy White House was a power grab at play. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, as biographer Robert Caro points out in his award winning series "The Years of Lyndon Johnson," would not settle on the status of the position he signed on for when he joined the Kennedy ticket in 1960. Caro describes Johnson's "campaign for power" as a multi-pronged approach that had him doing everything from lobbying senators to grant him unprecedented congressional leadership powers (as vice president) to working to establish an executive office beside the Oval Office.

President Kennedy handled this situation just as Abraham Lincoln dealt with a similar power grab by his Secretary of State William Seward. Both presidents were magnanimous in their dealings with subordinates who misread their bosses. Seward thought Lincoln to be an uneducated backwoodsmen. Johnson mistook Kennedy to be a youth who ascended to the presidency thanks to his father's fortunes and political connections.

At the end of all of Johnson's "scheming and maneuvering" (as Caro describes it), Kennedy gave him additional responsibilities (chairs of NASA and the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity). He explained the importance of these roles to Johnson and told him he could only trust Johnson's political experience and strong congressional influence to turn these committees into successful policymaking bodies. Caro describes in detail Kennedy's frustration with his second-in-command but, as the author points out, he handled it with such humility and assertiveness that Johnson was left to realize that:

"[Kennedy] was a lot smarter than Johnson had thought he was- and a lot tougher too. He was always, without exception, whatever the provocation, the gentleman- but a very tough gentleman. Nothing could have been more gracious than the way he handled Johnson's requests- and nothing could have been more unyielding."

A lesson learned here? Always show others (and particularly those who work for you) respect and deference while maintaining a firm hand on decision-making. As Lincoln and Kennedy pointed out, there is no reason why a leader can't be nice but assertive at the same time. In the end, it will pay off by placating subordinates while garnering their important respect.

This post is part of the "Leadership Lessons From American Presidents" series.

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