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Real-World Self-Leadership Case: John Johnson

John Johnson was given a difficult set of circumstances. When reading about, how would you compare the psychological world that John Johnson created for himself to the “reality” of the world around him in the 1940s? In what ways did positive thinking impact Johnson’s life? What specific self-leadership strategies did Johnson use to help him achieve his objectives?

John Johnson and Ebony Magazine

John H. Johnson was born in 1918 in Arkansas City, Arkansas. Because there were no high schools in Arkansas that African Americans were allowed to attend, in 1933 Johnson’s widowed mother moved the family to Chicago, where Johnson enrolled in DuSable High School. He was an outstanding student, becoming president of his class and editor of the school paper. He eventually won a scholarship to the University of Chicago. After college he worked at Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company.

At that time, mainstream news publications provided very little coverage of African Americans, so at the request of the insurance company’s president, Harry Pace, Johnson began compiling an in-house “digest” of events and happenings in the African American community. When he discussed his digest with friends, they often commented that it sounded very interesting, and many asked him where they could get copies of what he was talking about.

This gave Johnson an idea. He went to his mother and announced that he intended to start a magazine. His mother said, “What are you going to start it with? You don’t have any money. How are you going to start a magazine?” Johnson replied, “Well, I don’t know, but that’s my idea.” Mrs. Johnson mortgaged her furniture for five hundred dollars and gave the money to her son, which allowed him to start Negro Digest in 1942.

Early on, Johnson was unable to attract advertisers, and the magazine nearly failed. “I lived with failure, but I never accepted it,” Johnson later stated. “In fact, I discharged one of our early employees because he kept telling me that I wasn’t going to make it. I said, ‘Gee, I’m not secure enough myself to have anyone around me saying I can’t make it.’ There were many times when I doubted it. But I would go into a room and, as a teacher very often kept kids after school repeating things, I would repeat to myself, ‘I will not fail, I will not fail, I will not fail!’”

In 1945, Johnson published his first edition of Ebony magazine, which showcased the successes of African Americans around the country. Ebony was a fast success, with readership climbing from 25,000 to more than 200,000 in a single year. Six years later, Johnson founded Jet, a magazine devoted to covering African Americans in politics, entertainment, business, and sports. The Johnson media empire has expanded to include book publishing, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, and radio and cable TV stations. Johnson was the first African American to be included in Forbes magazine’s listing of the “400 Richest Americans.”

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