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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Compromise: Strength, weakness or a way of the past?

Question: In approaching the coming Congressional budget battle, House Republican leaders have decided to forsake the bipartisan center and bow to the spending-cut demands of the most conservative members of their caucus. This mirrors the strategy of House Democratic leaders who, in the previous session, accommodated the demands of their most liberal members on key issues, only to lose power in the next election. Is it more effective for leaders to demonstrate a willingness to compromise early on, or to stake out a hard line in the hope of compromising less later?

The following responses come from four fellows, from two different Coro 2011 Classes around the country. Tosin and Channing are members of the Coro Pittsburgh class, and Edit and Eric are members of the Coro San Francisco Class.

The initial 'nay'
The resoluteness of Egyptian protesters in recent events provides an awe-inspiring demonstration of the effectiveness of an initial hard-line approach. From its inception, the people advocated for what, based on history, seemed like a radical, fantastical idea; however, the momentum and traction gained from these initial uprisings transformed an idea into a new reality. In that context, compromise would have actually been a potential deterrent to the goal of the demonstrators, because it would have failed to pave the way to the drastic change for which the people had toiled. By making their initial "nay" a hard and fast one, the Egyptian people laid a solid foundation upon which societal change could be built.

Congress stands to learn from this demonstration of informal leadership. Because American society values compromise, it sometimes loses sight of the value of employing a hard-line stance in political decision-making. As the Egyptian people demonstrated, the mettle of one's conviction is often times best displayed by how it measures up to opposition. Compromise can just as easily dilute an effective solution as it can help create an effective amalgamation of perspectives and interests. If our political leaders look at themselves not just as formal political leaders but also as "informal leaders" who are championing the interests of their constituents, adopting initial hard-line stances would become a more palatable and potentially successful choice. In light of the proposed cuts within the budget plan recently released by the president, for example, Congress must resist the urge to choose the most universally accepted decisions and instead choose the best decisions for the country, whether those decisions come from the right, left, center--or through compromise. - Tosin Agbabiaka

No compromise, you win
Because the public often mistakes compromise for weakness, leaders who are public officials walk a thin line when it comes to compromise. The public mindset may say: If I vote for representatives and trust that they will advocate for the issues and policies they promised they would advocate for, then that is what I expect them to do. Demonstrating a willingness to compromise early on does not show me that my representative is willing to fight for what I believe and need, and if my public official doesn't fight for me, who will?

Neil Ducoff, in his book No-Compromise Leadership: A Higher Standard of Leadership Thinking and Behavior, states that "no compromise means no missed opportunities," which gives us a new way to look at achievement in the business world. Ducoff would say that if you are not meeting your benchmarks for sales, profits, customers and employees, then your lack of success is a reflection of comprise in the top levels of leadership.

Compromise often results in someone feeling as though they gave up too much or received too little. Leaders do not have the room for these results. They should instead take a chapter from Ronald Heifetz's Leadership Without Easy Answers, which explains that good leaders, instead of concerning themselves with looking too weak or too strong, effectively manage the conflict and stress amongst their constituents and strategically control the "holding environment," a term borrowed from psychoanalysis that refers to a therapist's ability to "hold" the patient's attention while facilitating the process of developmental learning.

Leaders cannot afford to appear weak or as pushovers. The public is passionate and they are fickle. The most effective approach for leaders to take is to stand firm in order to compromise less later. - Channing Martin

To compromise or not to compromise: That is not the question
The prompt before us this week gives no clear indication of the interests of the parties beyond that of merely retaining power for its own sake. While this strikes me as out of line with what ought to be the goal of good government, it comes as no surprise that this is what passes for effective political leadership.

The fact is, neither strategy presented here has demonstrated itself to be predictably effective in any given moment. However, it is perhaps true that while it may not always be the most effective strategy for maintaining overall party control in Congress, pandering to the interests of the most dedicated members of the party is perhaps the most consistently effective individual strategy for Congressman to retain their seats in future elections. The reason behind this is fairly simple. One cannot depend on the fickle nature of the "bipartisan center," who by definition are prone to shifting opinion and allegiances. In most instances, one should not risk alienating the base in the uncertain hope of winning bipartisan votes.

While compromise would appear to present the clear advantage of expanding one's appeal and therefore the likelihood of retaining power, the more one drifts to the center, particularly at the expense of issues that are key to their base, the less they are able to distinguish themselves and the more uncertain is their hold on votes. At the very least it is a gamble that most politicians would be unwilling to make, and at the best it is one that only the most skilled politicians can effectively manage. - Edit Ruano

A lesson from California
From a theoretical standpoint, I see the merits of taking a firm stance against compromise. As the question suggests, it allows for all players involved to grasp the priorities of the party taking the hard line, while strategically positioning them to negotiate in the future. However, in practice this situation lends itself to partisan posturing that cripples the deliberative process. The dysfunction in the California state legislature is a prime example of how this manifests in reality. Especially within the last five years, each party has staunchly proclaimed a firm, yet predictable stance that allows little room for compromise. Democrats have pushed for little to no cuts on social programs, while Republicans automatically shut down any budget proposal with taxes.

The end result has been a series of rashly crafted budgets that have neither party satisfied and leave Californians paying the price for partisan bickering in the long term. Now, the state is faced with closing a deficit looming over $20 billion, much of which is attributed to the legacy of last minute, short-term "shortcuts" from previous budget deals. Due to the hard-line stances adopted by party leaders early in the budget process, critical decisions were made only when the legislature was running out time. If Republicans want to succeed in communicating and negotiating their budget priorities, it is best to learn from California: avoid the partisan grandstanding and lead by setting a positive tone for negotiation. Correspondingly, Democrats should be equally willing to meet them halfway. - Eric Sanabria

Return to all panel responses

By Coro Fellows

 |  February 15, 2011; 11:19 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The difference between compromise and negotiation | Next: In negotiation, don't give away too much


Please report offensive comments below.

Tosin - There is already too much "informal leadership" in the form of lobbyists and revolving-door politicians. And, by definition, aren't ELECTED officials already in a formal, titled position? What change are you suggesting?

Channing - When has the government been successful in creating the safe "holding environment" that you referred to? Help me out because I can't think of a single instance.

Edit - Can only "skilled politicians" manage this balance effectively? Don't successful businesses do this every day by balancing different stakeholder interests? Why can't government do the same?

Eric - The "rashly crafted budgets" have still given both parties most of what they want. Isn't this fulfilling their responsibility to their constituents?

Posted by: bystander1344 | February 16, 2011 2:03 PM
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