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Ken Adelman
Political advisor

Ken Adelman

A Reagan-era Ambassador and Arms Control Director, Ken Adelman is co-founder and vice-president of Movers and Shakespeares, which offers executive training and leadership development.

Reason, incentives and coercion

Question: At the center of the labor dispute between NFL owners and professional football players is George Cohen, a federal mediator known for his work in helping Major League Soccer come to a resolution over its own labor battles. Mediators have no power or authority to compel either side to do anything, but they still have the capability to influence the outcome in nuanced ways. What must Cohen do to bring the more uncompromising members of both sides together to make a deal?

The tools open to any negotiator boil down to RIC: reason, incentives and coercion.

This I learned the hard way--very hard!--as director of President Reagan's arms control agency negotiating nuclear weapons cuts with the Soviets in the 1980s.

Over all those many years, and thousands (more?) of hours at the negotiating table, we came to realize the limited tools at hand.

Coercion, raw power, wasn't in our toolbox. Even reformer Mikhail Gorbachev had his proverbial "finger on the button." He could do us as much harm to us as we could do to him. So force was out, much as it is to George Cohen (admittedly, in a very different setting!).

Now go to reason. We could argue--as we did during our all-night session (8:00 pm to 6:20 am) at the Reyjavik Summit in October 1986--that we each had more than we could ever use, or need. In our case, it was nuclear weaponry. In Cohen's case, it is money available to players and team owners.

Two problems with this approach, though. First, few negotiating positions yield to reason. The Soviets weren't big on logic. Had they been, they wouldn't have been Soviets (living under such an irrational system). Second, "needs" and "use" are infinitely elastic. No NFL player would think he does not "need" more money, or could "use" no more. Ditto for Soviet war-planner with nukes.

So we're left with incentives. These can change over time, and be potent though abstract. Gorbachev envisioned a different future than Brezhnev or Andropov.

Plus, incentives go beyond specifics. The fans' faith in players, respect for the game, loyalty, admiration--all far more abstract than money splits, and yet somehow more powerful.

Here, George Cohen has a powerful tool--namely respectability, deserving of admiration--just as Ronald Reagan had when proclaiming that the new USSR, willing to sign the accord to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons (intermediate-range), ended its era as "the evil empire."

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By Ken Adelman

 |  March 8, 2011; 2:53 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Perhaps the biggest problem with the concept of incentives is that neither side seems to see any incentive as more valuable than money. Mr. Cohen's task is a difficult one; as much as we would like to make sports about emotions or fanhood, in the modern world they are nothing more than businesses run for profit. Given the predominance of the National Football League in American culture, both the NFLPA and the NFL owners may think that their industry is immune from any setbacks due to a prolonged dispute. They seems to be acting under the assumption that the fans will come back, the game will remain respected, etc. regardless of how these talks play out. Thus, abstract incentives may not be powerful enough motivators unless Mr. Cohen can help the two sides realize that the American public will quickly become disenchanted with the NFL as it watches two of the richest groups of people in the US squabbling over an sum of money that amounts to a fraction of their already massive fortunes.

Posted by: Henry_Hancock | March 11, 2011 2:50 AM
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I agree with Mr. Adelman's assessment of the limitations and arsenal of George Cohen in the NFL labor disputes. Without institutional power and thus, authority, Mr. Cohen must rely on his leadership skills. Leadership as defined as the exercise of non-coercive influence is all Mr. Cohen has but it is certainly a big stick. The key to good leadership is, in this case, two-fold. First, Mr. Cohen must convince each side of the incentives present for them in his mediation plan, as Mr. Adelman suggests. Second, and more foundational, Mr. Cohen needs to convince each side that his goals, intentions, and sympathies lie with them. Without any actual power, all Mr. Cohen has is influence which is only effective if the target of influence accepts the agent's advice. The key to this acceptance is trust. If Mr. Cohen can persuade both sides that he is on their side, which will allow him to sell each side on the incentives of his plan, then his influence will lead to an acceptale compromise for both sides

Posted by: DannyCohen | March 8, 2011 5:10 PM
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