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Are You a Hang Dog Leader?

October 14, 2012

Lyndon Baines Johnson was having a bad hair day. Here he was, Vice President of the greatest country in the world, former speaker of Congress and a master strategist and tactician, and he was slumped in a chair in a colleague’s office, head in his hands. He suddenly blurted out: “Being vice president is being like a cut dog.”

Others described Johnson’s transition from a bold, striking, confident politician to a shriveling, insecure man. Well-known journalist Bill Moyers referred to Johnson as “a man without purpose…a great horse in a very small coral.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan called Johnson a castrated bull. And author Robert Caro, from which these quotations are drawn, uses the expression a “hangdog look” in his new masterful book. The Passage of Power: The years of Lyndon Johnson.

So what was going on, considering that Lyndon Johnson went on to become President of the United States following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963?

Depending on the version you hear, John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert either wanted Johnson as JFK’s VP running mate in the 1960 election (to help secure the Texas vote) or he was only offered the post as a formality. The problem for JFK is that Johnson quickly accepted the offer.

Fast forward to post-election, where Johnson was in effect ostracized by the Kennedy brothers, left to wandering the halls of the White House, pathetically trying to portray himself as still somebody in the corridors of power. But everyone knew.

So why am I sharing a story from when I was six years old, back in 1961?

Because it exemplifies what happens when peoples’ self-esteem, dignity and self-respect are decimated due to the leadership practiced by superiors.

Think about your own examples of where you’ve worked, whether in business, government or the non-profit sector, big organizations or small. What happened when employees, whether yourself or co-workers, were excluded from decision-making, fed insignificant tasks or had information withheld.

I’ve experienced it in the public sector, but late in my career. Which is why many of my former colleagues and I decided to pack it in and retire. I recall being buzzed about my work when young, and then later as a manager leading a team of economists. Much later I moved to the nation’s capital where I worked for three federal departments up to my retirement. This is where I witnessed the Johnson “hangdog look” among many peers. But what was especially striking was seeing how many senior executives often had that look. For whatever reasons, these individuals became disengaged from the organization. And when employees see demoralized, deflated executives wandering the halls, then the organization is on a downward spiral. In short, no one any longer gives a crap about the organization and people start deserting ship.

Why does this happen?

Leading in the public sector is much more complicated than the public understands. It is not driven by the profit motive, in which shareholder wealth is the underlying force. Public sector executives face many masters, from the politicians in charge of a department to senior executives (e.g, deputy ministers and assistant secretaries) to unions to taxpayers to national community associations to lobbyists to employees.

In Canada over the past many years, political leaders have held the public service in disregard, often forgetting that its non-partisanship. The same applies in the United States. Once seen as one of the world’s top public services, Canada’s has become a deflated institution suffering under the iron thumb of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

When senior executives in government lose the interest and support of their political masters, employees quickly get the message through the actions and non-actions of management. Of course, this has an unfortunate impact on people, such as through increased stress and sick leave.

But what gets lost in the mess is the huge cost it exacts on taxpayers and citizens in general. This is irresponsible by our political leaders, but also those leading bureaucracies.

What is the solution? When it comes to politics the answer is democracy and a public that needs to inform itself on the issues and that holds politicians to account. Senior bureaucrats, it needs to be emphasized, hold significant power. Yet they’re largely invisible to the public. This makes accountability that much more difficult. Canada is a good example of a country that incurs quasi dictatorships when a government earns a majority through an election. The U.S., despite its warts with its political system, is more transparent than Canada’s.

In business, hang dog leaders typically don’t last long, especially with a very competitive marketplace with new competitors entering continually. In other words, there is a cleansing effect in business because of its very different nature from government.

Until a solution is found to address morale issues in government and the accompanying sloth and efficiency, not much will change for taxpayers. The result will be hang dog senior bureaucrats, shuffling along the corridors of power, wishing for what was.


Never spend time with people who don’t respect you
.
– Maori proverb


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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2012 11:01 pm

    An interesting post and applicable in many contexts.

    • November 5, 2012 11:51 pm

      Thanks. Caro’s book is a bit of a beast to read. It’s fascinating to see how LBJ regained his footing to drive forward major civil rights legislation in the U.S., morphing from Hang Dog leader to an assertive force.

  2. Chris Ryan permalink
    October 18, 2012 5:10 pm

    Interesting and all to true points you raise.

  3. October 17, 2012 9:01 am

    This was an interesting post. I never thought about these issues as affecting government before, but of course it is logical that it would, just like anywhere else. I like your Maori proverb!

    • October 17, 2012 1:37 pm

      Thanks Lynne. Glad you found the post of interest. Yes, politics is one area where you’ll find plenty of hang dog leaders, people who shot to stardom and then for whatever reason suddenly found themselves in the backseat of power and influence.

  4. October 15, 2012 11:04 pm

    Thanks Jacke. Good to hear from you. Have you read Robert Caro’s book on LBJ, “The Passage of Power?” I saw him interviewed on Jon Stewart when the book was released. He’s a great author, but the book is a bit of a brick.

  5. October 15, 2012 10:23 pm

    Excellent column, Jim!

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