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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Smart leaders compromise

Q: Winning an election often involves taking a strong ideological position to energize a partisan base. Actually governing, however, usually requires compromise. Will today's Republican leaders be able or willing to pivot successfully from campaigning to governing? Are there lessons from other fields on how to do it?

Compromise is not a four-letter word. It is a practical and proven method applied by good leaders in every sector to get things done, and done right.

Therefore it is so disheartening to see compromise being dragged through the mud of what purports to be political discourse. Politicians desperate for cash and voters roundly criticize compromise as somehow being a tool of deceit and an indication of lack of spine. When in reality, compromise is not only a sign of intelligence; it is a sign of strength.

Compromise is the art of seeing another person's point of view and the practice of determining if the other person has something valuable to add to your idea or your initiative. To adopt this view, a leader needs to know him or herself well and feel confident enough to include others in the discussion. People who are insecure lack the wherewithal to look for ideas or support from opponents. Such people are not ready for leadership positions, because their weaknesses prevent them from adopting a wider view.

When we think of such compromise, the example of Abraham Lincoln's management of the Civil War comes to mind. Lincoln was initially viewed as a weak president, but he showed his true strength, as we know from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, in selecting a cabinet of the best people for the job even though some had opposed, or were actively opposing him. Had Lincoln chosen those who would kowtow to him, the outcome of the Civil War might have been very different.

Compromise is an everyday occurrence in the corporate world. The notion that CEOs lead solely through fiat belies the fact that so many corporate initiatives fail. Success--in the form of an organizational transformation, a new product introduction or operational initiative--occurs when senior leaders engage at all levels to ensure the work gets done right. Augmenting the big idea with the suggestions and willpower of the team ensures the teamwork necessary to bring the project to fruition. Such collaboration only occurs when employees feel they have a say in how they do their work and therefore a stake in the shared outcome.

Not all compromise is possible. Leaders do not compromise on principle. When they do, they get in trouble. The root of the meltdown in the financial services industry was failure to abide by the values of fiscal prudence coupled with policies that enabled companies to assume higher levels of debt. In this instance both principle and policies were compromised for the worse and our economy suffered for it.

Rational leaders will say: "I will not compromise my values for expediency." Take the example of a sales manager who is challenged to increase sales by a big number. One solution might be to push sales people to cut margins or even to pay kickbacks. Such methods may move the sales needle, but do so in ways that would damage the company's reputation. Good business leaders do not compromise values for profits.

Compromise need not begin with big issues. I am reminded of a photograph that hung in the upstairs of a house that I sublet in my senior year at Georgetown more than 30 years ago. The picture, taken at a Congressional golf outing sometime in the Fifties, was of a smiling Richard Nixon in golf attire. As I recall, the inscription on the photo was personalized to the organizer of the outing and read something like: "Never have I seen so many Democrats and Republicans come together in a spirit of friendship and fun. Your friend, Dick Nixon."

Sometimes learning to work together with the opposition begins when rhetoric gives way to simple common courtesy.

By John Baldoni

 |  October 26, 2010; 9:53 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , CEOs , Congressional leadership , Government leadership , Leadership development , Leadership weaknesses , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Four questions to ask of Republicans | Next: Defusing our fiscal time bomb


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Compromise isn’t always what is in the best interest of the American people, what is in the best interest is when politicians look to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States for guidance and base legislation on that NOT compromise.

I did get a chuckle out of the quote the writer closed with. “"Never have I seen so many Democrats and Republicans come together in a spirit of friendship and fun. Your friend, Dick Nixon."”

Golfing! You have got to be kidding? Coming together to play golf in the spirit of friendship isn’t even in the same realm as coming together in the spirit of friendship when it comes to legislation… I don’t want that when it comes to law that effects/affects all AMERICANS!!!

Posted by: vatownsend | October 27, 2010 9:47 AM
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Well, gee, given the willingness to compromise and the simple common courtesy that the Republicans have (not) shown us over the last 2 years, can we really expect anything but disaster for the next 2? Learning to work together takes politicians more mature and responsible than the Republicans currently holding office in Congress or the nutcase Tea Partiers running for office under the Republican banner today.

Posted by: Chagasman | October 26, 2010 10:48 PM
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