Servant Leadership: Tough Times & One Lovely Action

All the beautiful sentiments in all the world weigh less than one lovely action.
— James Russell Lowell

Leaders emerge in crisis. Tough times reveal the confident, decisive, and tenacious. They also unveil the true heart of a servant leader.

Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency under the worst of conditions -- the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Pulitzer Prize biographer Robert A. Caro said this passage of power “came at the most traumatic moment in American political history.” He called the circumstances surrounding the transition “unprecedented.”

Traumatic moments and unprecedented challenges are the backdrop to what Hugh Sidey has labeled a “flawless assumption of power.” They also shine the spotlight on servant leadership at its best.

LBJ’s unprecedented challenges

Johnson was not a likely successor to the presidency — at least not in 1963. Three years of vice presidential obscurity had all but erased the power he once wielded as Senate Majority Leader.

1. Johnson was marginalized in the Kennedy administration

LBJ was a forgotten man in the Kennedy White House. He was ignored by the inner circle that navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. One-on-one time with the president all but evaporated. In all of 1963, Vice President Johnson spent a total of 1 hour and 53 minutes alone with the President.

2. Johnson was despised by Kennedy’s team.

Kennedy’s inner circle, a veritable Who’s Who of Intellectual Elites, had derided LBJ for three years. They nicknamed him, “Rufus Cornpone” and insulted Lady Bird Johnson with the moniker “Little Pork Chop.” Bobby Kennedy did his best to insult and humiliate Johnson at every opportunity.

3. Johnson was considered an “illegitimate leader.”

President Johnson’s recollection is telling, “For millions of Americans I was still illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne, an illegal usurper. . . .”

4. Johnson was called to serve a nation in shock.

Newsweek described the American people as “a communion of disbelief, sorrow and anger.” Los Angeles freeways became parking lots and busy New York traffic ground to a halt as drivers, stunned by the news of Kennedy’s assassination, gathered around car radios.

5. Johnson had to lead a nation that was stuck.

Johnson faced a divided nation (civil rights), a stalemated congress (the Kennedy agenda), a stalled economy and a frightened Wall Street. Stocks lost $10 billion in value within one hour of the Kennedy assassination.

These challenges served as the backdrop for Johnson’s first nine hours as President of the United States.

The Passage of Power

Despite the obstacles, despite the grief, and despite the chaos, Johnson took charge. He pushed aside his own fears, grasped the reins of government and set the nation on course. Johnson gave orders that would honor the Kennedy memory and care for Mrs. Kennedy. He expressed condolences to the slain President’s brother and mother. Aboard Air Force One, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as U.S. President among a grieving crowd, most of whom did not want him as leader.

As he flew back to Washington, he pressed Kennedy loyalists to stay on in order to preserve the continuity of government. He identified key staff and made decisions about press coverage that would have far-reaching implications. Upon landing, he addressed the nation. He called surviving Presidents Eisenhower, Truman, and Hoover to enlist their support. He worked in a makeshift office, spoke with key congressional leadership, made tough decision after tough decision, endured the ignominy of Bobby Kennedy’s discourtesy, and worked with all diligence to present a strong and united America before the world.

The Power of The Letters

It was approximately 9:00 p.m. when Johnson closed the door to a world in turmoil and opened his heart to two children whose world had just been shattered. Never mind that he had just experienced a day unlike any other in American history. He picked up his pen and wrote two letters in longhand to the Kennedy children:

Dear John,

It will be many years before you understand fully what a great man your father was. His loss is a deep personal tragedy for all of us, but I wanted you particularly to know that I share your grief–You can always be proud of him.


Lyndon B. Johnson

Dearest Caroline,

Your father’s death has been a great tragedy for the Nation, as well as for you, and I wanted you to know how much my thoughts are of you at this time. He was a wise and devoted man. You can always be proud of what he did for his country.


Lyndon B. Johnson

Johnson is an enigma. William Manchester wrote, “He would never be a simple man. He was capable of tactlessness and tenderness, cunning and passion.” He could rule, but as he put down his pen on that night, he also showed he could serve.

Servant Leader At Its Best

Johnson’s late-night letters to grief-stricken children call to mind another leader in transition. Luke, the gospel writer, records an incident in the life of Jesus. As Jesus journeyed toward Jericho, he had the cross on his mind and the world on his shoulders, but this did not stop him from helping a man along the road.

As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, 'Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.' And he cried out, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!' And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, 'Son of David, have mercy on me!'

And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 'What do you want me to do for you?' He said, 'Lord, let me recover my sight.' And Jesus said to him, 'Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.' And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God. Luke 18:35-43 ESV

Peter Drucker reminds us that organizations are three-dimensional. Good leaders pay attention to all three dimensions:

An important task for top management in the next society’s corporation will be to balance the three dimensions of the corporation: as an economic organization, as a human organization, and as an increasingly important social organization.”
— Peter Drucker [12]

In this day of political correctness and bottom-line thinking, Jesus’ actions on the Jericho road bring the “human organization” to the forefront. His actions provide a pattern for leaders who serve:

1. Listen to the voices around you.

There are hurting people all around us. Jesus heard a blind man crying out. LBJ heard the voices of two young children. Servant leaders are great listeners. They hear with their ears, their eyes, and their hearts. How well are you listening to the voices around you?

2. Ask: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Servant leadership is not simply sentiment. It is compassion in action. Jesus stepped into the realm of the practical. He asked a simple question that got to the root of the man’s problem. To whom do you need to pose Jesus’ question?

3. Act to meet the need.

None of us are Jesus. We cannot give sight to the blind, but we can take specific steps to meet the needs of someone who is hurting. When people are a priority, we will do what Jesus did. We will stop and help. What will you do today?

Entering into anyone’s life is time consuming. Are you willing to press the pause button?

One Lovely Action

Looking back at that traumatic November day, Jonathan Schell, the Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, commented that Lyndon B. Johnson, “along with whoever is responsible in the Soviet Union has become the hinge of human existence.”

“The hinge of human existence” — from a human perspective perhaps, but Christian leaders recognize that Jesus is the one who really upholds the universe (Colossians 1:15-17). And on that dusty road to Jericho with the cross looming on the horizon, he listened, stopped, and took time to help. God wanted that recorded for us.

Leaders often do their best work in tough times. They take charge, assume responsibility, and make difficult calls. But the heart of a servant leader also shines in the difficult moments. Jesus’ one lovely action. LBJ’s one lovely action. Your one lovely action. That’s the stuff of servant leadership too.

1.  "the most traumatic moment . . ." from Caro, Robert A. 2012 The Passage Of Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Page 344.
2. "unprecedented" from Caro, The Passage of Power, 344
3. Sidey, “flawless assumption of power" from Caro, The Passage of Power, 369.
4. 1 hour, 43 minutes from Caro, The Passage of Power, 225.
5. “Rufus Cornpone” . . . and “Little Pork Chop: from Caro, The Passage of Power, 198.
6. "I was still illegitimate, a naked man . . ." from Caro, The Passage of Power, 325. (This portion comes from L.B. Johnson’s interview with Doris Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson, p. 170; “Statement of President Lyndon B. Johns,” July 10, 1964, Vol. V, p. 563. Hearings (hereafter referred to as “Johnson Statement”).
7. "a communion of disbelief" from Caro, The Passage of Power, 342.
8. Johnson's challenges from Caro, The Passage of Power, 324.
9. The litany of obstacles Johnson faced upon his return to Washington from pages 307-372 of The Passage of Power detail in a very compelling fashion the challenges Johnson faced in his first few hours as President.
10. Letters from Caro, The Passage of Power, 369.
11. “He would never be a simple man" from Caro, The Passage of Power, 369.
12. Drucker, Peter. 2002. Managing In The Next Society. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Page 287.
13. "the hinge of human existence" from Caro, The Passage of Power, 344.