Man on the Moon
First and foremost, the role of a leader is to provide a vision. A famous example is when President Kennedy proposed in 1961 that, by the end of the decade, the United States would land a man on the moon and bring him home safely. JFK supplied the big idea. He didn't execute the strategies for the space program. He allowed scientists, engineers, and politicians to fill in the details.
In the same way, President Obama has said that a major goal of his administration is to reform the health care system and create universal health care in the U.S. He hasn't suggested how it will be run or who will run it. What he has done is to state the goal. The best leaders outline the grand vision and then allow others to embrace it and hone it until it is theirs. Leaders don't try to micromanage the work of the talented people they've hired to handle the details. If you do that, you take away people's sense of ownership of the vision.
An organization is usually successful when the people in it feel they're contributing to something much bigger than themselves as individuals. Chris Inglis, the deputy director of the National Security Agency, spoke at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School two weeks ago and told the story of a NASA janitor in the '60s who described his work as "helping to put a man on the moon." This janitor didn't see himself as just someone sweeping floors, but as someone who was involved in the vision laid out by President Kennedy.
Take a look at the speech JFK gave in 1961 when he proposed the lunar mission. He said, "In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon ... it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there." That's visionary leadership. He put forth an idea big enough for a whole country to share and support.
Of course, history is littered with the failures of leaders who tried not only to define the vision but to execute it as well. The Clinton administration's proposal to reform health care in the early 1990s was one such failure. The plan was created by a small number of people and then was presented in so much detail that the big picture -- the vision -- was lost.
So far, President Obama is taking the opposite, wiser course. He has given us the vision, and he has placed it in a context of absolute urgency by saying, in effect, "Despite the nation's $1.75 trillion deficit, health care reform is an important challenge that we must address right now, because in the long run we'll save money. We'll save lives. We'll be a better society."
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