LBJ and Hubert Humphrey – A Lesson in Radical Candor

LBJ_and_Hubert_Humphrey_Victory_Barbecue_tn“I miss having you get after me.”
In a letter from Hubert Humphrey to LBJ, July 30, 1955


How good are you at “candor?” My guess is – not all that good.

I know that I’m not. Especially when you consider the challenge of practicing candor in a way that really does work well; for the good of each person involved in any exchange of candor.

I’m a big, big fan of Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor. (Read my blog post: Radical Candor by Kim Scott – My Six Lessons and Takeaways). Here’s her formula: Radical Candor = Care Personally + Challenge Directly. This is done in many, many candid conversations.

So…, my wife and I went on a short trip, and we learned a great deal about Lyndon Baines Johnson: School Teacher, Senator, then Vice-President, and President. We visited the LBJ Library in Austin, and the LBJ Ranch outside of Johnson City. Both were worth visiting!

Click on image for full view

Click on image for full view

In 1955, LBJ was serving as the Senate Majority Leader, and suffered a major heart attack. While recovering, he received a letter from Hubert Humphrey. (Read the letter from my less-than-stellar photo). Here was the line that jumped out at me: “I miss having you get after me.”

“Get after me.” That’s radical candor in a nutshell. And, during our visit to these museums, I listened to a number of the legendary phone calls made by LBJ to a host of folks. And, in many of them, he practiced radical candor. He asked, schmoozed, begged, demanded, cajoled, in call after call.

One of the points made by Kim Scott is that practicing Radical Candor takes time; actual time – a lot of time – over the long haul. She calls for regular meetings, all of which involve continual conversations. (She has a workable, if demanding, formula in her book for managers to follow, to have such regular conversations).

LBJ was seemingly always on the phone

LBJ was seemingly always on the phone

I would suggest that LBJ provides the model for practicing radical candor. One of his demands/practices was this: he was never away from a telephone. In the days long before modern mobile phones, he had phones everywhere – in his office, his cars and limousines, and in every room of his house and White House and ranch. He even had a very long cord on his bedroom phone so that he could get in his pool at his ranch and still be on the phone. (He was supposed to be swimming, for rehab and exercise; instead, he just stood in the pool while talking on the phone).

And those phone calls were mostly phone calls with plenty of radical candor. That phrase of Humphrey captures the essence. “I need you to get after me.”

After all, we all need someone in our life to “get after me.”

Radical Candor: We need more of it, don’t we?

About that cajoling. I love this story. I heard it once in an interview, but I don’t remember where. This is from William Westmoreland, et. al., Texas Monthly: Remembering LBJ – They don’t make ’em like Lyndon Johnson anymore.

Hubert Humphrey told me how Johnson gave him pep talks and Humphrey demonstrated, saying, “He’d grab me by the lapels (to demonstrate, Humphrey grabbed me) and say, ‘Now Hubert, I want you to do this and that and get going,’ and with that he would kick me in the shins, hard.” Then Humphrey added, “Look,” pulling up his trouser leg. Sure enough, he had some scars there. He had a couple of scars on his shin where Lyndon had kicked him and said, “Get going now.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *