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Katherine Tyler Scott
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Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

The danger of political showmanship

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?

I have begun to wonder if the political arena is the best place to look for examples of leadership or effectiveness. The political showmanship and the horse-trading that masquerades as compromise are not the best ways to respond to our collective interests; they are not the most intelligent ways to address complex issues such as the national budget or to negotiate with those who are in legitimate disagreement with you. It is just not possible to get the best solutions when the process is one of these quid pro quo transactions. And drawing hard lines from the beginning--which leads to a penurious inching toward some middle ground where both sides might reach agreement--is wasteful, keeps the best solutions off the table and further erodes the public's confidence and trust in the capacity of Congress to work together on their behalf.

It is unrealistic to think that Congress can operate without compromise; but what is needed is a new definition of what compromise is, and training in the art and skill of what it means to negotiate based on the interests of the parties rather than on their positions. When leaders aren't able or willing to acknowledge the difference between these two things, they become captive to their own thinking and unable to entertain the thought that someone else may have a different, yet valid, perspective. The "I am right and you are wrong" attitude generates power struggles. In this paradigm someone has to win and someone has to lose.

Skillful negotiation can lead to real compromise that meets the interests of both parties. Getting agreement need not be a boxing match in which the objective is to mercilessly batter and knock out your opponent.

The art and skill of successful compromise is a process of negotiation that starts with clearly defining and articulating what is important to both sides. It answers the question, what is important and why? This means that the parties involved will respectfully and persistently inquire about what is behind the positions that have been taken and will ask questions that help achieve mutual understanding. Just doing this will surface the areas where there are overlapping interests. These common interests are the foundation from which compromise can be accomplished. Once they are agreed upon, the parties can develop options together for how to meet them. Out of this process the best options can be selected, and a plan of implementation can follow in which both sides are engaged and committed.

The kind of positional bargaining so prevalent in Congress right now doesn't generate more options; it discourages the creation of additional innovative approaches to the toughest problems we will ever face. Health care, education, national security, environmental stewardship, economic viability are not issues that should be subject to dualistic thinking. They require leaders who are able to see their complexity and interconnectedness. These are issues in which leaders understand that compromise is neither a competitive sport nor is it capitulation. Bi-partisanship is the means by which most of the interests of the people will be served. Effective compromise is an expansion of the ways in which shared values can be put into actions that will benefit most. If this happens, we all win.

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By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  February 16, 2011; 2:22 PM ET
Category:  Congressional leadership , Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: This is not the time to compromise | Next: Compromise is an ideal, not a reality


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It is important for our leaders to be strong in their opinions and show fortitude towards our common goals. That being said, demanding your way is reminiscent of only a petulant child. Both sides know that they have to agree on a middle ground if anything is to be done. They feel that by making their demands more extreme, if both sides compromise equally, the middle ground will fall more towards their own side. Such attempts to sway policy are obviously futile, as both sides are attempting the same thing.
If change is to be made then both sides have to recognize that the middle ground is the only path forward. However, I am afraid the moderate path does not draw as many votes the more extreme. Until that day, I am afraid gridlock will result, not anyone's progress.

Posted by: alexdobranich | February 18, 2011 12:53 PM
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Yesterday marked the 249th day that Belgium has not had a government. Why? Because it is one land populated by two very diverse peoples that can't even agree on the leadership direction their country should take. This may be an extreme case but it does exemplify how non-compromise leads to gridlock, and relates to the polarization today in Congress between Republicans, Democrats and even within party lines. When you have two major parties espousing extremely partisan views and unwilling to budge on any issue, nothing gets done! Instead, the majority of people in the center feel that they are being misrepresented by a few people with extreme opinions. In the last election, the result was the ousting of these extreme few. Leaders in Congress today should be willing to compromise. They must remember that they represent a whole range of constituents with diverse views. This means operating from a politically moderate standpoint.

Posted by: kaylaopall | February 18, 2011 12:40 PM
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While the political showmanship can oftentimes be trying to the public’s patience, it is important to negotiations. As Ms. Scott notes, much of compromise is the ability and willingness to articulate the issues important to each side. From this point fruitful negotiations can theoretically emerge. Many of the newly elected GOP senators are feeling the pressure from their more conservative caucus and have recognized the danger in being the first to acquiesce. By taking this “hard line” they can save face by forcing the Democrats to make the first concessions; from here negotiations can truly begin.

Although this chest-thumping can be distasteful and perceived as counterproductive, it is a necessary political maneuver. In contrast to Ms. Scott’s opinion that innovation is deterred by these “hard line” politics, I would counter that it is instead facilitated. Much more so recently, a politician’s skill is measured by his ability to “get things done.” In the case where Democrats have the ability to prevent legislation, compromise will become even more vital. Even though Republicans have initially forsaken a bipartisan center, it is likely that the only conclusion will be a gradual movement back to this center – in which new and creative solutions have been concocted along the way.

Posted by: MarkBrundage | February 17, 2011 12:03 PM
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