Posted by Brian McCullough
I offer up this post, not as an endorsement of kissing butt, but as an informational essay.
Let’s face it… we all have negative feelings about ass kissers. And yet, we all know that, as a strategy for getting ahead in life, kissing butt can’t be beat. People wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.
I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, part 3 of his multi-book biography of Lyndon Johnson.
Now, there’s a non sequitur for you.
But oddly enough, you could do worse than the life of Lyndon Johnson as a template for career advancement. The story of the thirty-sixth President of the United States is nothing if not a portrait of a man who sacrificed every aspect of his life at the altar of his personal ambition.
And LBJ had many techniques for ascending to power. He was an ardent New Dealer in the 30s and 40s when that was the only game in town. And later on, he was even a bit of a Red-baiter when that became popular.
But Johnson’s favorite technique for getting ahead was kissing up to, and ingratiating himself to those rich and powerful figures he thought could help advance his ambitions. Johnson had three powerful “R” mentors in his life (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia) that he used, at various points in his life, as a springboard to advancement.
And so, I offer the following tips for getting ahead in your career by effectively kissing butt, the LBJ way:
Choose Your Targets Wisely
You don’t want to spread your butt kissing too widely. The more promiscuous you are with your butt kissing, the less effective it is. You want to choose a few choice targets and concentrate your energy on them.
And the Big Boss is not always the best choice. If you want the boss’ job, the boss can only advance you so far before he himself is standing in your way.
Sometimes the best target is the person behind the scenes who holds great informal power but for whatever reason does not or cannot achieve the ultimate crown.
Johnson understood this when he entered the Senate. Sure, he had used Roosevelt and Rayburn as his patrons in the past, but when he became a Senator, the target of Johnson’s butt-kissing was not the Senate Majority leader, or even the leader of his party. His target was Richard Russell, a powerful Senator who wielded enormous behind the scenes power in the byzantine politics of the Senate.
This was a wise choice. For various political reasons, Russell was not destined to be President or even leader of the Senate himself. And so, because Johnson was his acolyte and mentee, Russell was influential in advancing Johnson into positions Russell himself could never attain… Senate Majority leader and later Vice Presidential candidate.
Be The Son/Daughter They Never Had
As his relationship with Russell demonstrates, Johnson understood that he wanted a mentor, not a patron. A patron might advance you out of charity or as a quid pro quo. But a mentor sees you as a son or a daughter figure. You are a surrogate for their own frustrated ambitions; or, a continuation of their own legacy.
Johnson often picked lonely, older men to ingratiate himself to. It would not be out of line to say he tried to become the son his mentors never had.
The advantage to this line of butt-kissing is obvious: if your mentor sees your success as a success for them as well, your mentor will fight for your advancement with the same tenacity with which they fought for their own.
Let Them Be Your Sensei
Johnson also understood that the quickest way to flatter your mentors, is to act as if you are an eager young apprentice, learning at the feet of the master.
As far back as college, he literally did this, physically sitting at the feet of influential professors, claiming to want to absorb the great wisdom that only they could impart.
He called Richard Russell “the Old Master” to his face, and spent nearly every day with Russell, pretending to absorb the wisdom that only the old Senate powerbroker could impart.
If you can do it without seeming too transparent, the quickest way to flatter a powerful figure is to do what Johnson did all the time: Approach them and ask them for advice on how you should handle a given situation. “I’d love to know how you would handle this if you were in my shoes,” can be the magic butt-kissing words that will allow the target of your flattery to pontificate about their own past trials, triumphs and philosophies.
Let Everyone Think You Agree With Them At All Times
Finally, Johnson’s greatest butt kissing weapon was to make all sides of any issue think he was on their side. He was not above completely agreeing with one faction, to their face, in private… only to completely agree with the opposing faction when in private with them.
Liberals thought Johnson was a New Deal Liberal. Southern Conservatives thought he was a staunch defender of the Old South. The truth was, Johnson was on nobody’s side but his own. The only cause he truly believed in was his own ambition.
I’m not suggesting you have to be so Machiavellian (or soul-less) but there is an advantage to having everyone think you’re their ally.
If you have no enemies, you can pick your battles to your advantage. You can float above or through the fray because everyone thinks you’re on their side. Additionally, you have the luxury of waiting to stake out your real position… and waiting can give you the chance to suss out the winning side.
And best of all, when you do decide a position, your decision has extra weight since everyone thought you were with them at the beginning.
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