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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.

Compromise is king

Question: In a high-stakes game of political chicken, President Obama appears to have bowed to Republican threats to block the extension of tax cuts to the middle class--and all other legislation--unless a similar tax cut for high-income households was also included. Is this realistic bipartisan compromise after a sobering election, or is it a sign of weak leadership?

The tough part of management is not administration; it is people. Well-managed systems may run themselves. People, on the other hand, are not to be managed; they must be led.

Part of the governance process in any organization is getting people to go along with ideas they themselves have not initiated. Good leaders know that most people, if not all, are motivated by self-interest.

While politicians cater to the interest of voters, true leaders understand that governance goes well beyond communication. Good governance requires an ability to see both sides of an issue and work toward an outcome that a majority will support. That requires compromise.

One man who understood the nature of compromise was Dwight Eisenhower. Although Ike knew how to give an order and expect it to be carried out, he was wise enough to realize that life did not operate according to an Army field manual. He learned this first-hand as Supreme Command of Allied Forces in Europe where he had to balance the wishes of his superiors, Roosevelt and Marshall, with the dictates of Churchill and DeGaulle--not to mention the egos of Montgomery and Patton. None (save for Patton) could be ordered; they needed to be placated. That required something that expert leaders do well: listen, learn and understand.

Later in life, Ike, no doubt after serving as president, said, "There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters." This statement echoed one by statesman-philosopher Edmund Burke. "All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter."

Effective compromise is not capitulation; it is a process of accordance with another point of view. We all like to believe that our ideas and opinions are superior but reality dictates they seldom are. Few organizations will run well with one person in charge; smart organization accommodates ideas from all sectors, because in doing so they meet the needs of the people (customers or constituents) they serve.

Compromise does not preclude tough decisions. While it is important to listen to other points of view, a leader is under no obligation to agree. Standing up for what you believe to be the right decision is the very definition of leadership. But standing tall for every idea you have is delusional. Doing so repeatedly drives good people way from you, not to you.

There is an exception to compromise, and Eisenhower knew it well. As preface to his above comment, Ike said, "All human problems, excepting morals, come into the gray areas." Note the exclusion of morality. Trading in values for expediency--be it for profit or re-election--is what gives compromise a bad name. The rule that good leaders who know how to run an organization follow is simple: compromise on issues, yes; compromise on values, never.

Issues will change by the day. Values--truth, honor, integrity--are forever.

By John Baldoni

 |  December 6, 2010; 5:10 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Government leadership , Managing Crises , Organizational Culture , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Grow up, Washington | Next: On tax cuts, pragmatism vs. principle


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Oh get real; this Chickens**t has not stood up for anything except more Bush BS!

If he has values; there are more in line with the other kings of BS, Limbaugh, Rove, and BushCo!

I'm done with him and throw him into the same basket as the Repugs, cockroaches of America!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | December 7, 2010 10:11 AM
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I agree compromise is the foundation of good government. It's a sign of the ability to view situations in a larger context and a desire to achieve success for all stakeholders, not just one group. And leadership means holding your ground when you believe that your vision means more for the long term than expediency. Essentially, all good leadership is about bringing about a desirable tomorrow.

Just a minor point: Values change over time too. If they didn't we'd have no Women's Suffrage, Civil Rights Act, etc. A never-bending moral stance may sound attractive, but in fact morality is relative, and highly variable based on the circumstances.

Posted by: Diamond104 | December 7, 2010 1:37 AM
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