In her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, describes how President Lyndon Johnson enjoyed tremendous success as a leader when confronted with domestic issues, but failed miserably when confronted with foreign affairs. On the home front, Johnson was motivated by several positive goals he set for American society: a tax cut, civil and voting rights, Medicare, and federal aid to education. When it came to Vietnam, however, he lacked confidence and was motivated by avoidance of failure – avoid defeat at all costs.
In this blog, we talk often about three requirements for successful coping: Acceptance, Accountability, and having a Correction Plan to modify actions that don’t work. Furthermore, this plan must develop from honest give-and-take communication with others and be based on empathy and respect for others’ positions. Johnson showed them all in his domestic strategy. As Kearns notes, 623 days after John Kennedy was assassinated and he was sworn in as president, Johnson had signed congressionally-approved bills for all of his major domestic goals.
How did he manage to have such success? First, he accepted the realities of Congressional power. Second, when confronted by blind alleys and political obstacles, he knew the responsibility was his to take charge of overcoming the obstacles. Third, knowledgeable about Congressional dynamics he devised legislative plans that involved an empathic appreciation of other opinions, honest communication with adversaries, and a willingness to compromise.
On the foreign front, however, Johnson had no proactive goals. Avoidance of disaster was his ill-framed objective. He turned to “experts” on how to stave off catastrophe, and he became dependent on their point of view. Overwhelmed by stress, he sought only to manage issues, not resolve them, a poor coping strategy. He mistakenly saw the North Vietnamese enemy as analogous to an opposition party in Congress, and he tried to treat them as such. When this approach failed, he looked for scapegoats to blame for the disaster unfolding around him. As realities piled on him, he took the one avoidance road left: He announced he would not run for re-election.
We note again and again how avoidance is a doomed strategy when it comes to coping with stress. Johnson was no different. He produced significant changes in society that radically improved the lives of Americans. But the damage inflicted on the country from his stubborn persistence in Vietnam was immense. As Goodwin notes, this realization would plague Johnson for the rest of his life.
How are you approaching the stress in your life? Are you the “domestic” Johnson or the “foreign affairs” Johnson?