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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Guest Post – Compromise Until It Hurts

“A good compromise leaves everyone slightly unhappy.”

Today’s leaders ought to frame that phrase and hang it on their office walls.  Regardless of their chosen arena – be it business, religion, the military, politics – etc., every leader should do a gut check, and ask “When is the last time I actually compromised?” I don’t mean in terms of compromised principles – those ought to never waver.  I’m referring to those moments when you placed the long-term good of two parties ahead of the short-term good of one.  When you actually gave up something – and really hurt because of it – with the hope that it would yield something better, later. When you lost, to gain. 

No one wants to give up something important today for something uncertain tomorrow.  No one wants to bring harm – financial, military, political, or social – to themselves or the potential tens of thousands of people they represent.  This is true especially when that decision depends on putting trust in a rival or unknown party. 

But a genuine compromise forces us to do so.  Compromise leaves leaders vulnerable in their temporary defenselessness.  And for the leaders of today – or any day – that is a position we’re taught to avoid, particularly in our capitalist culture where confidence can sometimes be as important substance to closing a deal.  And yet we’re in the financial position we face today in great part because of our leadership’s inability to enact real compromise.

Leaders on Wall Street failed to strike arrangements with boards and shareholders on reasonable long-term growth projections, leaving them pursuing untenable gains and inflating the economic bubble.  Leaders on Capitol Hill have often failed to relinquish ideology on healthcare, climate change, and financial reform in the interests of progress for the constituents they serve, leaving them (and us) with arguably the most partisan political system in American history. 

We’re living in a highly volatile time made worse by dire economic straits, and we’re growing increasingly unable to take the time to understand each other, and concede personal interests for the greater interests of the whole.  The media is more segmented than at any time in a generation.  The stratification of social classes is increasing.  We, as a nation, are increasingly polarized. To right the ship, we need leaders who can rediscover the true nature of compromise.

I’m no idealist.  I know how the world works – I’ve lived too long, and done too much in the business world, not to.  And it’s with that knowledge I can say that our ability to move the progress needle rests on our leaders’ collective ability to think, “what can I give up to move forward?”

Then, that leader should give a little more.  Pragmatism isn’t always elegant.  But it works.