Watching the health care reform package twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, I am reminded of the basic difference between those who get things done and those who don’t. The difference, as Forrest Gump so eloquently stated. is this: “Simple is as simple does.”
Often leaders are simply “too intelligent” for their own good. This is particularly true for leaders gifted with high intelligence. For some reason, they have a tendency to prove that they are really intelligent. And they do this by taking simple things and making them complicated.
I am coming to believe that when it comes to successful leadership, high innate intelligence is overrated. Leaders do need to be “smart,” but there is a difference between being intelligent and being smart.
No one would accuse Ronald Reagan of being a member of the intellectual elite. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter is considered to be one of the most intelligent men to ever occupy the White House. Which of these presidents is considered to be the most successful as a leader? Reagan was not conspicuously intelligent, but quite smart about the way he set about delivering on his agenda. Carter was intelligent, but not very smart about the way he went about things. (George W. Bush is in a class of his own, being neither intelligent nor smart!)
Exceptionally high intelligence often becomes a disability for a leader because his intellect gets in the way of getting things done. They see all the challenges, alternatives, problems and issues that stand in the way of accomplishing an objective. This normally results in two types of response. They either become paralyzed by the options and never make a decision, or they attempt to settle each and every issue, no matter how tangential. Either way, the result is that the objective becomes unduly complicated and any attempt to achieve it, needlessly convoluted.
The more simple-minded leader tends to focus only on the objective and the simple steps needed to achieve it. In short, the intelligent leader sees the things that are complicated and the smart leader sees the things that are simple. And in reality, big things are accomplished by simply doing simple things.
The story of health care reform is a classic example of this conflict between being intelligent and being smart. Clearly President Obama and the people around him are highly intelligent, but by their actions they have shown that they are not all that smart.
The objective was simple: Reform the health care system in a manner that would allow those who do not have basic health coverage to obtain it.
Using their high intelligence, the Obama Administration produced a plan that was highly detailed and sought to address each and every issue regarding health care. As a result they produced a confoundedly complicated plan full of twists and turns – running more than 2,000 pages in length. It was a plan that few could understand and even fewer could support. No one should be surprised by the failure to achieve the original objective.
The less intelligent, but smarter leader would have kept the solution simple. There are already two national health care plans in operation – Medicare and Medicaid. Medicare currently covers individuals age 65 and over who can afford to pay for their coverage. Medicaid is a federally-funded health care plan for those who cannot afford regular health care plans.
If the objective is to provide health care coverage to those who do not have it, then the simple plan would have been to – over a period of time – expand Medicare to all ages for those who could afford it. Those who couldn’t would be enrolled in Medicaid. Such an approach would eliminate the need for the myriad state programs and free up billions of dollars to pay for the plan.
This is not to suggest that such an approach is the best way to achieve the objective or that it would pass Congress, but clearly it is much simpler and easier to understand than the plan that was proposed. Moreover, because the plan is simple, it is easier for the voting public to understand and support.
And the Moral of the Story …
It takes intelligence to make simple things complicated, but that is not smart leadership. A smart leader takes complicated things and makes them simple.
Making things simple is one of the most important secrets to successful leadership. Where the highly intelligent leader tends to look at every possible issue and give them equal weight, the smart leader steps back and focuses only on the most critical. He asks the question: What is important here and what is not? Once the critical issues of an objective have been selected, it becomes much easier to find simple solutions. In the end, the successful leader achieves the objective by identifying simple things to do and encourages his followers to simply do them.
As Forrest said, “Simple is as simple does.”