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Leadership Lessons for Obama from Health Care Reform

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Dear Mr. President,

Not since FDR has a president faced such a bedeviling array of issues. Already you have some notable accomplishments in withdrawing from Iraq, avoiding an economic collapse, and improving our image abroad. These are no small successes, and through them you have shown your sharp intellect, openness, ability to compromise, and composure and patience under fire.

These are admirable leadership qualities, but as your healthcare slog clearly shows, these trying times require even more of you, Mr. President.

You will pass your bill this week, but I will not be alone in expressing my disappointment in the outcome. The process became so politicized that it's now watered down with compromise and stripped of any true reform. I believe the steady decline in public support for it mirrored growing disillusionment that true reform would result as the process went on. Instead the opportunity of giving people more choices and controlling costs was compromised by giving too much to special interests and insurance companies. I also believe many Democrats now support the bill for simply the short term gain of the party, rather than the long term interests of the county.

In retrospect, it seems that your strategy for the process was to throw it out there, let chaos play itself out, and then step in for the win. Unfortunately, it's not a win that many feel good about any more.

What are some of the leadership lessons in all this?

You Delegated Your Top Priority:
You may have over-learned the lessons of Hillary's effort in the 90s and gone too far in the opposite direction. You delegated formulation of the bill to Congress, but do Nancy Pelosi and that partisan group know more about health care than you and your staff? I hope it is clear to you now that the Republicans were more interested in blocking the process than helping you govern, turning the whole thing quickly into a quagmire. So instead of Hilary, you might better have followed the example of LBJ in getting Medicare passed. He played a clear role in conceiving the bill and then cracked heads, threatened, bullied, and charmed it through. His hands were on it all of the way. He stayed on top of it, and he pressed it home before opponents could organize resistance. For the biggest item on your agenda, you needed to take more control and responsibility in its conception and its process.

As the Great Articulator, You Did Not Articulate: In your campaign, you said: "I am absolutely clear that hope is not enough. . . . the only way we are actually going to get this stuff done, number one, we are going to have to mobilize and inspire the American people so that they are paying attention to what their government is doing. . . . If the American people are activated, that's how change is going to happen."

But you failed to follow your own advice.

You are a fan of Lincoln. One of his most admirable traits was his ability to read public opinion and stay just ahead of it. Doing so, he was able to actively shape it in being the most visible president up to that time. You too are visible, and this is one of your strengths, but you didn't leverage it effectively.

There were two problems.

First, soon after delegating to Congress, you went on break with everyone else. In the vacuum, town halls and tea parties were organized. The backlash put you on the defensive and you never fully recovered. You took your hand off the throttle and fell behind instead of staying ahead of public opinion.

You Lacked a Clear Vision. Second, you never fully articulated your vision. One of the five primary leadership styles I often speak about is that of the Visionary. As our leader, we want to know what you are thinking and why. To shape public opinion, and persuade Congress on health care, you have to convince us about why the system is broken, what the plan is for fixing it, and how you (and we) are going to do it. What was your burning platform Mr. President? But every time you spoke on the issue, you left us hanging without the specifics. Sure, the ultimate plan needs to emerge from a dialogue among all stakeholders, but that dialogue needs to start with your Vision. Then you can inspire us with your oratory, mobilize to make it happen, and adapt as you need to.

A vision is a compass that signals to yourself and others what is most important and why, and that has real power in it. We need you to lead with yours - you can't shape and galvanize public opinion if we don't know what's most important to you.

I believe you are a Visionary, it is another natural strength of yours, but again you did not play to it. To be successful, you need to first state your vision and then play politics to sell and adapt it. Instead you tried it the other way around and got bogged down.

You Needed More Toughness.
Sometimes the worst abuse of power is to not use it at all. You have a soft touch, which can be appropriate for reducing tensions and opening dialogue. But when the vision is clear, and a tipping point of support is reached, it's time to push hard and kick ass and take names as LBJ did. I call this leadership style the Warrior, and my sense is this may be the greatest leadership challenge you face personally. The other adjustments you can make fairly easily by pulling back on some priorities, staying ahead of the public, and articulating your vision. The toughness part, on the other hand, may not be in your nature. If that's true, you might consider having others on your team who can be the Warrior for you, people you can count on for slam dunks when you need them.

I often advise, play to your strengths and work around your weakness. We urgently need the best you, Mr. President.

I have become long winded. I hope this helps in some small way.

Visit my homepage at ClintonSidle.org

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