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Obama is Reset -- Are You?

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Like FDR, Barack Obama is a Reset President. His muscular involvement in GM is only the latest example of his view that the current turmoil is not some bump in the road, but a seismic shift. Things will never be the same--for him or for us.

Obama is way ahead of most of us, but we all face the same choice: Will you hunker down until the storm blows over and then try to restore? Or will you adapt and Reset now, and start from a new beginning?

Hunkering down means cutting costs, instituting more control, conserving and protecting resources--waiting it out. We get e-mails every day from people and organizations that are pulling back everywhere possible.

Resetting means bringing closure to the past, deciding what of all that you value is worth preserving, then using the turbulence as an opportunity to change the rules of the game and invent the future. Reset is operating as if nothing is certain except uncertainty.

Barack Obama was a Reset candidate who ran a campaign that was bottom up rather than top down and promised to be a Reset President if he made it to the White House. We should not be surprised by these first two months.

Here's what Reset looks like for the administration: On the substance side, he has refused to postpone his key domestic priorities--education, energy and health care--in favor of the immediate need to jumpstart the economy; he has jettisoned prevailing economic wisdom by moving closer to nationalization of the financial and auto industries; he's started all over again on climate change; he's overhauled the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and appears to be reaching out to Russia, Syria and the Taliban. Rather than offering a detailed health care plan for everyone to attack, he has removed himself from the debate by forcing Congress to struggle with the tough value choices and take ownership of the outcome--whatever it may be.

On the style side, Obama has confessed error, talked about running experiments rather than proposing solutions, and acknowledged making mid-course corrections. And he has been unusually transparent throughout, floating ideas himself rather than under the cover of anonymity, and continually challenging our image of the President as "the Decider." He seems to take almost nothing personally.

These are all Reset ideas and practices.

But Reset is risky and uncomfortable, and the Obama is playing a high-stakes game, both on substance and style. If economic recovery does not begin soon, Obama risks failing both in the short term and the long term. If it's not substantial enough, he will have to propose raising taxes on the middle class to pay for his domestic initiatives. And if that doesn't work, he will be in danger of a one-term presidency, like that of Lyndon B. Johnson, who did not want to sacrifice his domestic agenda for the defining issue of the day, the Vietnam War. (Unlike Obama, LBJ compounded the problem by lying both about the progress of the War and about the riskiness of what he was trying to do.)

The late Senator Pat Moynihan famously said that "the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." Obama is doing the political Reset. The cultural Reset is left to the rest of us.

Most humans deal poorly with uncertainty. We look to our senior authorities, whether the President, the Governor, the CEO, the Executive Director, or Mom and Dad to create stability, security and clarity for us. That's what we want from those in charge: direction, protection, and order. We are hard-wired from the day we are born to depend on authority to provide those services. And as long as they do, we reward them with whatever is the coin of the realm: loyalty, love, votes, money, and more responsibility.

But in these times, depending on authority to do it all for us is a prescription for failure. None of them--and none of us--has ever been here before. The experts we relied upon got us here, after all. No one honestly can know how to solve these problems for us, no one in charge can do anything more than make a best guess and experiment. The problem is not that times are changing. The problem is that nobody knows how to operate in the midst of complex, rapid change when the future is so uncertain. Obama, by being both realistic about the difficulties and the risks and optimistic about the future, is trying to enable us to cope with that reality at a rate we can absorb.

Obama embodies Reset for a President, but he's not the only one facing uncertainty. What does Reset look like for you, professionally and personally? Like health care reform, Reset is still under development, but a few defining characteristics are apparent already:

1. Looking Over the Horizon Thinking long term even in the midst of short-term crisis; investing money now to save or make money later. Examples: buy a hybrid car, spend whatever it takes to retain the best people in your organization.
2. Giving up Some Autonomy Permeating traditional boundaries by delegating responsibility and building new partnerships. Nurturing your networks, rekindling relationships, collaborating and sharing your ideas with anyone who will work on them. Example: join Facebook and Twitter
3. Running Experiments Trying something new, maybe multiple initiatives, rather than championing "solutions". Learning and making mid-course corrections. Examples: introduce a new product or service, start the day earlier.
4. Acting publicly on your values Deciding what is really most important and then closing the gap between what you say you believe and what you actually do. Example: put a stake in the ground by giving all your charitable contributions to one or two organizations rather than spreading them around, spend more time with friends.

In this Reset moment, whether you're sitting in the Oval Office or your home office, a boardroom or your dorm room, the future is yours to invent. You've got two options: figure out what is important to you and act on it, or wait for some else to do the same and react to what's important to them.

Stand deep in your own purpose.

Marty Linsky teaches leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School. He and Alexander Grashow are partners at Cambridge Leadership Associates, where Grashow in the Managing Director, and are co-authors, along with Ron Heifetz, of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, to be published by Harvard Business Press in April. Linsky blogs at Linsky on Leadership.