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Guest Column: Blind Spot in the LBJ White House

Guest Column: Blind Spot in the LBJ White House

A guest column:

Blind Spot in The LBJ White House

by Aviv Shahar

Unlike conspiracy theories you can do nothing about, there is much you can do to disarm a dangerous blind spot that derailed the LBJ White House. Seven out of ten managers fail to achieve the highest possible level of success because of this blind spot. You will discover how the blind spot relates to you and what you can do about it. But first: Have you discovered your learning inclinations?

Seven out of ten managers cannot answer this question positively. Individuals’ brains are wired differently, including those of your team members and the people in your life. Understanding processing preferences will have a decisive impact on your ability to communicate effectively and to influence others.

Not understanding his learning inclination was one of the main factors that contributed to the troubles of Lyndon Johnson even before Vietnam became an intractable disaster.

The LBJ Story

Here is what happened: JFK was a “reader.” Part of his success came from his understanding that he preferred to process information by reading. He surrounded himself with bright people who produced position papers on three sides of every issue. Written expert opinions helped Kennedy process issues, focus on the essentials and form his positions. His staff presented material to him in the best possible way – the way he was “wired.” This knowledge enabled JFK to work from inside his comfort zone, because reading was his learning inclination.

After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ moved into the Oval Office and felt morally obligated to keep Kennedy’s team together. They went on doing what they had done so well in the past, which was to produce position papers. The problem was LBJ was not a “reader.” He was extremely bright and experienced but his wiring – the way he processed information – was different than that of his predecessor. Johnson was a “conversationalist.” Rather than connecting the dots and finding clarity through reading, he processed and perceived issues through dialogue. LBJ’s effectiveness came from his ability to negotiate and understand issues through listening to other people and then hearing himself frame a position.

The Blind Spot

The blind spot in the LBJ administration was that the staff failed to recognize that the new guy had a different “information processing preference,” a different “learning inclination” – he was “wired” differently. The White House became dysfunctional in part because nobody stopped and said: “Wait, this is a new guy. We need a new game. His processing preferences are different.” Instead, the White House staff continued to produce position papers which LBJ couldn’t process and did not read. They then viewed him with disdain as not intellectual enough to grasp what had been critically important for JFK. In fact, LBJ was not a “reader-thinker.” He was an “intuitive-conversationalist.”

We propose in this insight that the lack of understanding of individual learning inclinations was a huge blind spot in LBJ’s presidency, and that it is a debilitating blind spot for many leaders and executives.

What About You?

Do you know the nature of your “smart”? Have you discovered how you learn best? Are you able to organize the information you need to fit your process preferences?

Bright managers, promising careers and high potential teams get derailed by this blind spot – i.e., the lack of awareness and understanding of their unique learning inclinations. To be effective with your team, you need to:

  1. Tell them how you prefer to learn and coach them in how you process information best, which will help them be more effective in working with you.
  2. Identify the preferred learning style of the people who work with you, so you can be more effective with them.

Understanding learning inclinations includes more than discovering whether you are a reader or a listener. The range and nuances of learning inclinations are subtle. Until you realize the people around you are each wired differently, it’s very likely you are compromising your and their ability to succeed.

Although numerous studies of the five senses and learning styles have shown how different people sometimes benefit from using more than one sense to absorb new material, there continues to be a lack of application of these valuable insights into business leadership and communication skills. Here is a series of questions to help you discover your own preferences and inclinations.

Discover Your Learning Inclination

Take a moment to reflect on your own experience. These questions will clue you into your learning inclinations.

  1. In what situations do you feel most engaged when learning and assimilating new information?
  2. Do you like reading books? Are you able to recall right now three specific insights you distilled from reading books in the last two months?
  3. Do you learn best by watching and observing someone else? Can you recall the last two times you learned something by observation?
  4. Do you like listening to books on tapes? What is the last audio book that influenced your thinking?
  5. Do you enjoy picking up new information from watching documentaries and movies? What are the last two movies you saw that impressed you with new thoughts or ideas?
  6. Were you the kind of person who tried to take apart the radio, the phone and then the car simply to be able to put them back together? Do you learn best by trying things out with your hands?
  7. Have you recently or in the past enjoyed walking and talking at the same time? Do you have a walk-and-talk buddy?
  8. Do you work things out in a conversational way? Do you have a phone-buddy you use as a sounding board?
  9. Are you inclined to solo learning or to collaborative learning?

10.  Do you have a mastermind team to explore options and scenarios?

11.  Are you a visual person? Do you process data best with tables, flow charts and mind maps?

12.  Do you enjoy teaching because you learn more by explaining to others?

13.  Do you get the most out of an interactive coaching session?

14.  Do you keep a journal and clarify your thoughts through your own writing? Do you get your best ideas when you write, when you are on your own?

15.  Do you enjoy thinking during physical exertion? Do you find that engaging in kinetic activities or pacing around helps you articulate thoughts?
It’s important not to assign a moral judgment as to which of these approaches is better or more important. The question is simply: How is your brain wired? How does your brain prefer to process information? What is the best way for you to learn? Your preference is neither good nor bad, it’s just what works best for your brain.

Perhaps only 25 percent of people follow their learning inclinations (consciously or not.) They then excel in certain tasks and jobs, which leads to careers wherein they use more of their learning preferences.

Now it’s your turn to put this insight to work. Avoid the LBJ blind. Discover your learning inclinations. Coach your team members to discover their data processing and learning preferences. Encourage a deliberate conversation about this insight to liberate your collaborative potential. Create dramatic new futures for you and for the people your help and lead.

© Aviv Shahar

Aviv Shahar | [email protected] |425.415.6155| www.avivconsulting.com |

Aviv Shahar is an international consultant, coach, author and featured speaker. He has extensive experience coaching executives and helping leaders create dramatic new futures for people and organizations. Aviv is known to his global clients as The Innovation & Collaboration Catalyst. He is a recognized expert in organizational transformation, leadership and strategy. His experience in coaching for high-performance in critical operations began as a fighter pilot responsible for training other fighter pilots in the Israeli Air Force.

Written by

Alan Weiss is a consultant, speaker, and author of over 60 books. His consulting firm, Summit Consulting Group, Inc., has attracted clients from over 500 leading organizations around the world.

Comments: 2

  • Dave Gardner

    March 15, 2011

    Excellent piece, Aviv. Well written, compelling ideas. It makes me wonder if LBJ had arranged the communication to fit his needs if he might have had the wherewithal to take on a second presidential term. The incongruence he must have felt would have been mentally exhausting. He did accomplish some important civil rights legislation but the Vietnam War seemed to raise an internal conflict within him that he could not reconcile. Having lived through the JFK assassination, it has given me a different view of what it means to have the vice president one heartbeat away from the presidency. You just never know when the vice president’s number will be called.

  • Lew Sauder

    March 19, 2011

    As a consultant and a history buff, I enjoyed this post. I’ve taken on positions where I inherited a staff and needed to adjust how they communicated with me. I’ve also found that a new manager needs to teach the staff their preference for the frequency of updates, amount of detail and even the format of status reports. You don’t need to completely change the staff to have things done your way, just change the policies and procedures to best fit your style.

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