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Marty Linsky
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Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Why Less Is More

For Obama on health care, as is often the case for Big Feet and their visions, less is more.

Painting a broad brush and letting others work on the details is a smart leadership when you cannot make real progress without the active engagement of others and when those others who need to engage have deep-seated, value-laden points of view on the issue.

This is exactly the situation facing Obama on health care. The United States will not have health care reform without a majority of the Members of the House and 60 Senators voting for it, and many of them have strongly-held views about what health care reform should look like.

People at the top of the food chain too often get sucked in by the pressure to flesh out their vision. See the Clintons' health care fiasco. Stakeholders inside and outside of the organization usually prefer a detailed plan, rather than doing the hard work, taking responsibility for fashioning it themselves, and then having to own the result. If you do all the work for them, then they can take potshots at the plan and make you the issue. See the Clintons health care fiasco, again.

There are two risks in pursuing the less-is-more approach. First, you will disappoint those people who want and expect you to take all the responsibility. They will do whatever they can to get you to provide more detail usually, as some of Obama's critics on the left and right are trying to do, by attacking you personally, calling you weak or worse, in order to get you back into meeting their expectations.

The second risk is that those who you engage in the work will come up with a plan which is not exactly what you intended. See Obama's stimulus plan. It is less of a risk when you do not have strong preferences on the details. It is easier, as I suspect is the case with Obama and health care reform, when virtually any plan that can get 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate will be ok with him.

Finally, Obama's strategy here is another example of how he understands the changing world we live in better than most of those inside the Beltway. In a flat world with permeable boundaries and the Internet-facilitated free flow of information, collaborating across those boundaries, including across hierarchical boundaries in an organization, is increasingly becoming not just an effective way, but the only way to exercise leadership on difficult issues.

By Marty Linsky

 |  March 2, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Category:  Public policy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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