Vision Is Not A Team Effort

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Rarely is there a discussion about leadership – successful or failed – that does not include what President George H W Bush once referred to as “the vision thing.” President Bush snapped off this phrase in frustration to criticism of his perceived (which in leadership becomes reality) inability to express a clarity of goals and principles that would allow him to shape public opinion and influence action. In short, Bush was chastised for lacking vision. Fair or not, if a leader is unable to effectively define and communicate a clear and concise vision of where and why they are seeking to lead others, they will ultimately fail. An individual who lacks vision can be a good manager, but they make for lousy leaders.

And that’s the point: If a leader’s success is going to rise or fall on the basis of the “vision thing,” shouldn’t they make sure that it is their vision and not the product of “group-think?” Vision is the responsibility and domain of the leader; it cannot be the product of a committee.

Despite this, there are still many in the business world who believe that a vision – cloaked under what is called a “mission statement” – should emerge from the ideas of a group. Business consultants are famous for setting up a series of “planning sessions” that discuss, dissect and debate what the “vision” should be. I was serving on the board of directors for a company when the chairman of the board decided that it was the purview and responsibility of the board to develop a “corporate vision” for the CEO. The results of these efforts always end up with a long complicated, convoluted and superficial “vision” for the company. One that is rarely understood and soon forgotten.   

The Work of an Artist

Ask yourself this: How many great works of art are the product of a committee? What many fail to understand is that in essence the successful leader is an artist. They paint the picture – a vision – of what the future will be under their leadership and then they hang that picture in front of their followers so they can see, understand and be constantly reminded of what their efforts are building toward.

The truth is that the vision of a leader comes more from their heart and soul, than from the brain. A vision is something they are passionate about; something they believe in down to their core. True leaders don’t lead because they want something, but because they want to do something. It is this passion that inspires the individuality of their vision. A leader’s vision can be created for a group, but it can’t be created by a group.


The leader’s image of what they want to do is so vivid and so alive for them, they can communicate it in such a way that followers can not only understand it, but can believe in it. That’s why a vision that expresses a clarity of the goals and principles of the leader is so critical to effective leadership. Once the leader has captured the hearts and minds of the followers with their vision, the brain takes over to determine and implement the ideas and actions that will make the vision become a reality. If you understand this, you can understand why the vision must be the domain of the leader, not a committee.

Visions of the Past

In 1962 President Kennedy famously outlined his vision for the American space program as “landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade and returning him back to earth safely.” This vision was clear, concise and easy to understand. Once the vision was laid out, the challenge was to figure out how to make it happen, but there was no confusion as to the intended goal. Can you imagine when, if ever, we would have landed a man on the moon if Kennedy had turned to Congress or some highfalutin special panel to create a vision for the space program?

When I led the founding of LifeUSA – a startup life insurance company in an industry dominated by giants – my vision message was simple: “Within five years LifeUSA would be competing successfully, on a national basis, against the very largest companies; and all those who contributed to achieving that goal would share in the success.” Everyone who joined with LifeUSA clearly understood what we were about and the benefits of achieving that vision. With the vision in place any and all ideas and actions could be measured against the vision to be achieved.

Maybe the most famous business vision of a leader might be the one Bill Gates had for Microsoft when in 1980 he said his goal was to “have a computer on every desk and in every home.” At the time computers were housed in warehouses and only an inspired individual could dare to have such a vision of universal expansion. We know the rest of the story.

What this boils down to is that those with a true, deep-seated, achievable vision lead, while the best the rest can do is manage the achievement of the vision. It is the passion of an individual’s vision that creates leadership and ultimately drives success. Doing what needs to be done is often done best as a team effort, but visualizing what has not been done, but could be done, can never be done by a committee. 

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Repeal Obamacare!

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

 

There is no doubt that The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — AKA Obamacare – has failed to achieve its most fundamental objectives. The primary goal of the legislation was to make health insurance available to all Americans, with the parallel promise that this health care would be affordable. Obamacare has failed on both points and is so flawed it should be repealed.  

While 17 million Americans have been added to the rolls of those insured, there are still over 25 million who remain uninsured. Furthermore, those who have been able to obtain medical insurance are finding that the coverage is anything but affordable. Once the newly insured are signed-on, the insurance companies (unencumbered by regulation) are systematically raising the cost of coverage by as much as 30 to 50 percent annually.

There are (at least) three reasons for the failure of Obamacare: 1) Obama was willing to give up on principles in order to get any law passed. 2) To gain their support, insurance companies were allowed to participate in the design of the plan in a way that would benefit them financially. 3) The Republicans were unwilling to support any plan that would guarantee insurance coverage for all Americans.

The problems with Obamacare remain unresolved because it has become no more than a ball in a political rugby scrum. The plan’s supporters – mostly Democrats — are struggling to find ways to fix the unfixable, while Republicans remain fixated on blanket repeal. Both of these approaches to Obamacare talk at the problems but fail to offer real solutions. Have you noticed that one group is not complaining about Obamacare? That would be the insurance companies, because they are too busy piling up huge profits from Obamacare.  

As a general proposition, the Republican Party believes that medical care is a privilege not a right. They believe all Americans should have all the healthcare they need and want, just so long as they have the resources to pay for it. As a result, every single GOP presidential candidate’s position on healthcare starts with repeal of Obamacare, but none of them offer even a hint of an alternative. Can you just imagine the chaos and confusion that would ensue in the health-care arena if Obamacare was simply repealed and no viable alternative was available?  

The Democrats, on the other hand, act as though the “right” to have healthcare coverage means that it should be free; as if there was no real cost involved. Can you just imagine how costly and confusing healthcare will be if Obamacare is allowed to continue down its current path?      

The good intentions and objectives of Obamacare were admirable, but for reasons outlined above, the design and implementation of the plan were both botched and it is beyond repair. The longer Obamacare is allowed to stumble down its current path, the more costly and inefficient it will become.  The goal of insuring all Americans at affordable cost will never be met. The Republicans are right – Obamacare should be repealed. But the Republicans are callous and dead wrong to suggest that the healthcare – or lack thereof – for millions of Americans should be left to the caprices of the insurance companies, driven by profit alone. Does it seem fair to you that an individual’s access to reasonable healthcare should not be determined by the weight of their wallet?

There is a Better Path to Healthcare for all Americans

Already in place, time-tested and working effectively (as any government program can) are the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Medicare provides effective and efficient medical care to millions of Americans 65 and over. Medicaid – a combination of state programs funded by the Federal government – provides medical care to millions of low income individuals.

The point is that these two programs have processes and procedures in place and are in point of fact administering healthcare (from private hospitals and physicians) for millions of Americans, but not for all. So the question is: Why not repeal Obamacare and replace it with the two national healthcare programs already in existence and functioning effectively? The simplest and most direct way to offer all Americans basic healthcare at affordable costs is to expand and enroll everyone – at any age – into Medicare or Medicaid.

This can’t be done with a flip of the switch, but an organized expansion phase-in over time could make it happen. For example, in the first year those age 60 to 65 would be eligible for Medicare, then the next phase would include those 55 to 60 and so on until everyone was covered.

Of course, adjustments and changes would have to be made to both systems, but these would be more administrative and cost-control measures. For example, premiums and deductibles for coverage could be adjusted based upon income or wealth. There is no reason why someone making $1 million a year should pay the same premium or deductible as another making $50,000.

There is not space in this blog to delineate all the adjustments that would be required in order to make Medicare and Medicaid work for all Americans, but they are more administrative in nature and don’t go to the core of the programs. Ultimately the Medicare and Medicaid programs could be merged. The point is that we have two time-tested and functioning programs providing healthcare for millions of Americans, so why not just do the right thing and expand them to include all Americans?

Can Everyone be Happy?

Of course not everyone will be happy with these changes, but when is everyone ever happy with any action?

The Republicans are going to have to disabuse themselves of the belief that health care is a privilege and not a right. They accept basic education as a right, why not basic health care? Aren’t both of those part of the Constitutional right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? The reality is that of the 47 largest industrial nations in the world, the United States is the only country that does not consider basic health care as a fundamental right of its citizens. But Republicans can be happy too. They can take credit for repealing Obamacare and swallow the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid. After all, every Republican president since Nixon has accepted and expanded Medicare and Medicaid. 

The insurance industry will certainly not be happy. So what?! The insurance companies have had a free-hand to provide health insurance for Americans for over 50 years. They have done a miserable job. If you had lots of money and were in good health, you could buy all the health insurance you wanted. But woe betide the individual who was poor or had a preexisting condition. Besides, the insurance companies could make a ton of money selling supplemental policies (as they do today) that pay the deductibles for Medicare, or for extra care not covered by Medicare.

The hospitals and doctors will not be happy. Don’t be so sure. I have hear many hospital administrators and doctors complain about Obamacare, but I have never heard any complaints about Medicare. Sure, they will complain about Medicare’s attempt to control costs and for not reimbursing the hospital or doctor for what they want to charge for their services. But have you ever heard of a hospital or doctor going bankrupt because Medicare or Medicaid didn’t pay enough for the services they provided?

And the Moral of the Story …

If we (as we should) want to provide effective, affordable healthcare for all Americans – despite age or resources – we have to recognize that, for all its good intentions, Obamacare is not the answer and it should be repealed. Doing nothing or “letting the market determine” who gets coverage is not the answer, either.

But the answer in right in front of us. Medicare and Medicaid has worked for millions of Americans and with just a little effort we can repeal Obamacare and replace it with these systems that have proven to work. So?

As a Business leader – To Get More Than You Expect, You Have to Give More Than Others Expect

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We’ve all heard the widely perpetuated theory that we make use of only about 10 percent of our total potential brain-power. The inference is that we have a reservoir of untapped potential that if released could dramatically increase our intelligence and success. While the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls has been cited as validation of this notion that we only use a fraction of our brain-power, it has never been scientifically proven to be true.

However, when it comes to leadership in business, there is a similar theory of underutilized power that has been repeatedly proven to be true. It is called the “theory of unexpected expectations.” This concept manifests itself when business leaders significantly underestimate the potential of employees; and it happens all the time.

Most business organizations are nothing if not structured. It is a world focused on process and procedure, often with little real attention to progress and performance; especially performance above the expected. In the corporate environment more effort is directed toward the desire to have every activity controlled by approved systems of operation than there is in seeking to achieve the potential of exceptional performance.

When it comes to employees, most companies strive to catalog and categorize their activity and expected performance. Employee are put in a box – a performance box. The “job description” outlines the tasks to be completed, expected performance levels and the value (salary) the organization is willing to pay for that activity.  The ubiquitous “annual review” ritual is a tool used by management to inform employees how close they have measured up against the expectations of performance established by the organization.

I fully understand (but don’t accept) the logic driving the standardized approach to establishing performance expectations for employees within a business organization. The objective is to create conformity that eliminates uncertainty over the expectations of employee performance. Admittedly there is a certain amount of need for this, but it does come with a price.

The downside to delineating and monitoring expectations of employees is that it can leave a great deal of potential performance on the table. Just as there is the inference of wasted opportunity when we only use 10 percent of our potential brain-power, there is the corollary of wasted performance when the potential of people-power is squandered in the name of consistency and conformity. In the long run this means that the overall performance of the organization is less than its potential.

A Better Way to Set and Achieve Expectations of Performance

My firmly held belief is that employees will contribute beyond what is expected of them if their contributions are encouraged, respected and rewarded beyond what they expect.

There is no standardized way to create an environment that motivates employees to contribute beyond what is expected of them; and if there was it would be no better than the current system. There are in fact a variety of ways this type of motivation for exceeding expectations can be created. Finding the right one may not be easy, but the reward – for the organization and the employee – is worth the effort. Just this past week I read of one company making the effort to create an environment that encourages employees to contribute beyond what is expected.

Neal St. Anthony, the insightful longtime business writer for the Minneapolis StarTribune, profiled a small manufacturing company in northwestern Minnesota. The owners of the company – Central Boiler – have a simple philosophy when it comes to their employees – they share the value their employees create with the employees. Dennis Brazier, one of the owners, was quoted as saying, “You treat people the way you want to be treated.” There is no obligation for this small private company to share the rewards of the company’s success, but it does. According to St. Anthony’s article, in 2015 the 235 employees of Central Boiler shared equally a pool of $1.26 million dollars. This was a clear signal to all employees that their contributions are encouraged, respected and rewarded beyond what they expect. And this in turn motivates employees to contribute beyond what is expected of them.

I discovered that the best way to encourage employees to contribute beyond what was expected of them was to show respect for their talent and contributions by including them in the process of setting the standards of expectations. It may seem counterintuitive for a large organization to allow the employees to set expectations of performance, but so long as they know they will be recognized and rewarded for their efforts, the standards they will set for their performance will always be higher than you expected. When employee performance exceeds expectations, both the organization and the employees become exceptional.   

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