Thursday, January 23, 2014

Our Transformational President (3)

(from Nancy LeTourneau)

My argument is that President Obama has effected transformational change in five areas:

  • Healthcare
  • Healthcare Costs
  • Immigration
  • Budget/Debt
  • Ending State of Perpetual War
I also argue that a transformational leader has the following characteristics:
  • Has undergone personal transformation
  • Listens deeply, with "clear lenses"and a "beginner's mind"
  • Creates safe space, sanctuary, allowing others to "show up"
  • Internal calm, grace under fire
  • High cognitive capacity - vision logic, sees emerging wholes
  • Strong moral compass, values-directed
  • compassion for others, a Servant Leader
  • present, mindful, resilient, trusting, fearless, unflappable
Lao Tzu, a 5th Century BC Chinese sage, told us:

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

The sage is clearly making an argument for "leadership from behind", the kind of leader that honors the people, engages them, and to a large extent, leaves the people to figure out for themselves how to  accomplish the work. What Lao Tzu does not say (though I believe it's implied) is that there must be crystal clarity on what the work is. This is the North Star Obama talks about - the clear attractor that calls the entire fleet of little ships, gives them a direction, and provides a "magnetic intention" that helps to organize them into a coherent formation, sailing towards a clear destination.

Listening. Honoring the people. Fierce, unyielding clarity about the direction intended, where North is for each great endeavor. Then trust in the people's capacity to provision the little fleet, outfit them, and get them all sailing coherently towards the desired destination.

This is the pattern Obama has followed in all his major initiatives. Lao Tzu, my list of capacities for a transformational leader, and Obama - all of these are of a single measure; they cohere together. In the hard science of complexity theory, the experimental results are clear: a complex system can be changed, transformed in fact, by engaging three central "levers" - identity, relationship and information. When a complex system's identity is altered, and it selects a new Mission, a new North Star; when all elements of the system are open and available to connecting relationships; and when essential information is shared, and flows freely thoughout the system - then the system will self-organize, creating its own means of reaching the North Star.

This is why there is a healthcare bill. The President set three clear organizing criteria: Budget neutral (no more than $1 trillion on the expense side); affordable and available for all Americans (excluding the undocumented); and designed to bend the accelerating healthcare cost curve. The Democratic leadership team fully accepted these organizing principles. And from there until the bill's completion, the President mostly stayed out of the legislative logrolling. When Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special Senate election in early 2010, the President had to come back in and reaffirm everyone's commitment to "getting 'er done!" And by the end of March, we had a bill.

This is why the healthcare cost curve is really and truly bending. The ACA supported healthcare providers in choosing a new North Star. Providers had begun experimenting with moving away from fee-for-service under Bush; what the ACA did is highlight and supplement this beginning movement; identify clear test protocols and incentives to accelerate it; and in the process made it clear that quality, not quantity was the new North Star, the new organizing principle of the healthcare delivery system. Supplement this with an early and significant investment in electronic health records plus including insurance companies deeply in the ACA design, and you have all the elements of a system that will become self-organizing - new identity, inclusive relationships, and available information. The cost curve is bending, and by a process that conservatives simply don't understand.

For immigration, once again the President focused on making clear what was his North Star, his organizing principle - a path to citizenship plus strong border security. He began connecting quite regularly with a group of Republican Senators, mostly focusing on Budget discussions; and when the 
Senate vote was taken, there was a solid bipartisan majority in support of the bill. Pressure now is mounting on the House to act on their own or a similar bill; but the forces of conservative opposition are still powerful. I'm betting this will happen, possibly this summer, and almost certainly before 2016.

On the Budget, the key decision the President made was to set a $4 trillion 10 year deficit reduction goal early in 2011, following release of the Bowles-Simpson Commission Report. Few people saw the stratagem - after all, when has a Democrat ever been serious about deficit reduction? But Obama had made this decision, thinking it was the only way to disarm the GOP budget-cutting machine. This $4 trillion target  set the agenda and provided an organizing direction to a host of unrelated actions and events through the present day. The GOP has little room to move to cut spending: the President won't negotiate on entitlements unless Republicans open up on new tax revenues; and further cuts to social programs will need to be matched by Defense cuts, which the GOP hawks won't swallow. Stalemate. Precisely the objective.

On foreign policy and ending our state of perpetual war, Obama set the tone early: engagement, not confrontation; an honest accounting of how US policies may well have contributed to some countries distrusting us; a demonstrated ability to take the warrior's clear risks (Osama bin Laden); a refusal to have his policies be categorized or labeled (Remnick said Obama's policies were neither idealist nor realist - rather they were particularist - in other words, every new situation, every country is dealt with in a particular, i.e., individual manner); a parallel refusal to lock himself into "old" definitions and labels (i.e., Iran is an irrational, irredeemable actor); and above all of these - patience, waiting for the moment - knowing that if the seeds have been properly planted, the crop will, at the end of the seeds' own, particular germination cycle, appear. As for the Global War on Terror, he just quietly turned out its North Starlight. Without fanfare or fuss, the GWOT was over. In the next 6 months to a year, we will see what kind of crop these transformative plantings will yield. I am an optimist; I predict a deal with Iran, a Syrian peace agreement, and real progress in Israeli-Palestinian discussions. The President said in his Nobel prize acceptance speech that he and America would fight when it was necessary, but that peace and non-proliferation were the guiding objectives, the North Star. But while demonstrating a clear willingness to go to war, at the same time Obama withdrew America's claws: ended the war in Iraq; a planned exit from Afghanistan; no strike in Syria, working instead with the Russians to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons; and a preliminary agreement with Iran. A major transformation is underway.

Obama, as a man, has done the great and difficult work of his own personal growth and transformation. He is in the 6th year of his Presidency, and he has used his qualities as transformational leader to effect or begin transformational change in huge areas of our domestic and international polity. 

Most of this is invisible to Republicans and a fair share of America. But it's true.

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