Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency: Crisis to Purpose

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What is Lyndon B. Johnson famous for? What was the greatest accomplishment of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency?

Lyndon B. Johnson, who was president from 1963 to 1969, inherited the country during a time of immense crisis. Despite the struggles the nation faced at the time, LBJ was able to achieve great things as a president; his most noteworthy accomplishment being the passing of the Civil Rights Law. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of Leadership: In Turbulent Times, attributes Lyndon’s accomplishments to his clarity of purpose.

Here’s how having a sense of purpose helped Lyndon unite the nation in times of grief and despair.

How Johnson’s Crises Taught Him Purpose 

According to Goodwin, Johnson had two personal crises that taught him the importance of purpose. Johnson’s first crisis happened when he lost an election to the U.S. Senate in 1941—which, Goodwin argues, was as traumatic to Johnson as the crises faced by the other presidents she discusses. Johnson didn’t separate his private and public life: Since his father had been a Texas state representative, Johnson had known from his early childhood that he wanted to be a politician. As a result, Goodwin argues, he’d designed his entire life around his political career. So when he faced political loss, he had no way to retreat from his political life and reconsider his options, as the other presidents discussed in this guide did. 

As such, Goodwin argues, Johnson continued to work in the public eye. However, his loss in the election also led him to lose the sense of purpose that drove his best leadership: his desire to help people. So, although Johnson continued to be politically successful, eventually winning a Senate seat eight years later, he did not lead as well as he could have: Notably, he treated his staff so poorly that many of them resigned.

In this way, when Johnson faced his first crisis, he lost his sense of purpose—and this led to his second crisis: his 1955 heart attack. Goodwin explains that this heart attack threatened to end Johnson’s political career: Doctors forbade him from returning to work, and the media suggested that Johnson was not healthy enough to continue his trajectory toward the presidency. As a result, Johnson became depressed.

(Shortform note: Many former presidents hid their health problems from the world in order to avoid any suggestion that they were not healthy enough to become president. Notably, John F. Kennedy hid that he had Addison’s disease, a long-term endocrine disorder.)

However, Goodwin argues that Johnson’s heart attack was a blessing in disguise because it reminded him of his purpose. The heart attack made Johnson aware of his own mortality and, during the vacation from politics it forced, allowed Johnson to reflect on the legacy he wanted to leave behind. In doing so, Johnson remembered that he’d originally pursued a governmental career because he wanted to help the less fortunate, and he made this the mission of the next stages of his political career. It was when he regained this sense of purpose, Goodwin argues, that he changed from being just a man in power to being a true leader—someone with a vision and a path to reach that vision.

How Grief Damages Your Sense of Purpose—and How to Regain It

Johnson’s lack of purpose after the 1941 election indicates that he may have been grieving. As experts note, any loss can trigger grief, which is especially pronounced if that loss damages your identity. This loss of identity can also trigger a loss of purpose: When you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. 

Johnson’s election loss may have been particularly traumatic because it likely damaged his identity in two main ways. He lost his relational identity—his identity as someone who helps people, like his father did. This loss is evident in his inability to successfully lead his staff. Additionally, the election loss may have damaged how Johnson viewed the world: Experts contend that events that make you question your fundamental beliefs often trigger a loss of identity. It’s possible that Johnson’s inability to separate his political and personal lives even in the face of political loss may have caused him to initially question the wisdom of keeping them so intertwined, even as he continued on to political success. 

Moreover, medical problems like the ones Johnson experienced are common among the bereaved: Research indicates that if you’re grieving a recent loss, you’re more likely to have a heart attack. Given that Johnson’s heart attack occurred 14 years after his election loss, it’s unlikely to have been triggered by his grief, but it still could have been affected by it: Researchers have found that the bereaved are more likely to die of any medical issue—including cardiovascular disease—even 10 years after their loss.

So how should you deal with your grief to regain your purpose and potentially protect yourself from future medical issues? To regain your sense of identity—and with it, your sense of purpose—experts recommend reflecting on your identity and how it might have been changed by grief, just as Johnson did during his forced vacation from politics. Having a sense of purpose may also protect your health. Experts argue that grief triggers medical issues by altering your brain so that you’re constantly stressed. Research suggests that having a sense of purpose helps you deal with stress and also reduces your risk for both mental and physical health issues, like cardiovascular disease and depression.  

Moreover, leadership experts Nick Craig and Scott Snook agree with Goodwin that finding your purpose is especially important if you want to lead, arguing that defining your purpose and committing to it is the most important task for any leader. To do so, they first recommend reviewing the greatest challenges of your life and examining what unites them—that unifying element will help you discover your purpose. Johnson rediscovered his purpose (to help people) alone, but Craig and Snook recommend doing this process with people who know you well. Once you’ve found it, Craig and Snook suggest figuring out which five-year goals will help you live your purpose—and then developing short-term goals that will help you achieve these long-term goals.]

How Johnson’s Crisis Affected His Leadership 

According to Goodwin, Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency demonstrates how having a clear purpose is essential to leading in times of crisis.

In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson had a clear purpose: Help the country grieve, and give it a path forward. Since these goals were so clear, Johnson was easily able to find a way to fulfill both of them: by passing Kennedy’s civil rights bill. This both honored the late president’s memory and held the promise of a new America in which everybody had equal rights: The bill was designed to desegregate public spaces and enforce the integration of schools, writes Goodwin. 

As a result, Goodwin contends, Johnson’s new purpose became passing the civil rights act—and he only succeeded because his clarity of purpose allowed him to make the compromises necessary to achieve what he really wanted. Goodwin explains that Johnson was initially unwilling to amend the bill in any way. However, when he learned that his opponents wouldn’t vote for the bill until at least some of their changes were included, he yielded and allowed them to change the bill: He chose to prioritize passing the bill at all over passing it in its original state. Thanks to Johnson’s willingness to compromise, the bill gained bipartisan support—and ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency: Crisis to Purpose

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  • How great leaders grow from tragedy and personal challenges
  • How FDR’s polio diagnosis helped him lead the country through the Great Depression
  • Why Lyndon B. Johnson’s heart attack instrumental to the civil rights movement

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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