Weapons and Sports Agents
Life imitates art, art imitates life, and both reveal deeper patterns.
In the late 1990s, citizens and officials from the U.S. Department of Defense began meeting in response to mounting congressional concerns over the Army’s plans to destroy antiquated but still dangerous chemical weapons. The idea was right but the method of decommissioning was in dispute. Stockpiled weapons -- old canisters of nerve and mustard gas, left over VX, and other unused explosives and corrosives -- were still hazardous and most communities wanted nothing to do with them. The fight on how to rid them lasted more than a decade.
Convened and facilitated by The Keystone Center, “The Dialogue on Assembled Chemical Weapon Assessment” was composed of 32 community members from nine stockpile sites, federal and state regulators, representatives from tribal nations, national activists, and national and local military staff. Most of the participants had been involved in long-term legal and media battles over “Chem-Weapons” and had often testified against each other in Congressional hearings.
As might be expected, the dialogue began with harsh accusations and years of pent up anger with each side accusing the other of duplicitous behavior. By the time it ended five years later, the Army had completely changed its disposal strategy and a new trust between old opponents was created.
Every negotiation, ACWA included, is a dance. Some are tangos. Others are polkas, jitterbugs, or waltzes. Sometimes partners are in perfect sync. Other times they step on each other’s feet or stumble off the dance floor.
In the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise plays an up and coming sports agent. After visiting a severely injured client, Jerry has an epiphany. He writes an inspired new mission statement for his firm, ends up losing his job, and watches as all his clients except one abandon him. Rod Tidwell (played by Cuba Gooding) is the single talented, arrogant, and perpetually emotional football player who decides to stick with Jerry as both of them try to remake their careers.
Jerry needs to renegotiate Rod’s contract with the Arizona Cardinals. Rod is pressuring Jerry for a higher salary while the Cardinals are trying to pay him the minimum because they don’t like his attitude. In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Jerry confronts Rod in the locker room after a practice and pleads with Rod to lower his expectations. Ever prideful, Rod refuses and insists on getting the “kwan.” Jerry asks him what that word means and Rod tells him it’s the whole package: love, respect, community, and the dollars to go with it. “Some people,” he tells Jerry, “have the coin but they will never have the kwan.”
The character played by Tom Cruise is based on the real life career of sports agent Leigh Steinberg. Steinberg got his start as a professional negotiator by accident. In 1975, he happened to be at home recovering from a bout of dysentery he had picked up in Africa when he got a call from a student he had met as a dorm counselor in law school. The student was Steve Bartkowski, an All-American quarterback and top pick in the National Football League draft. Bartkowski asked Steinberg to represent him and Steinberg negotiated the largest rookie contract in the history of the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. Since then, Steinberg has become known as a shrewd, talented, and continuously successful negotiator. Steinberg’s law firm has represented more than 150 clients ranging from Troy Aikman and Steve Young to Drew Bledsoe, Kordell Stewart, and Warren Moon. He has also worked with Fox Television, Warner Brothers Studios, ABC Entertainment, HBO, and on films such as Kevin Costner's For Love Of The Game and Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday.
“There is a misnomer,” says Steinberg, “that destroying another person's position is an effective and practical way to negotiate. In reality, even if destroying another person's position and winning is possible, that scorched earth philosophy will lead to a broken relationship, so that one negotiation may be successful, but that likely will be the last time you can have an effective negotiation with that person. As for me, I just wish I didn't keep losing the ‘dishes’ negotiation at home.” The Keystone Center’s Dialogue on Assembled Chemical Weapon Assessment, or “ACWA” as it came to be called, is just one example of what many of us do, but it’s a good one.
ACWA met thirteen times over five years and produced a set of consensus-based technical alternatives to the incineration methods proposed by the Army. Since the meetings ended in 2002, these innovative methods based on water treatment have been implemented at sites in Colorado and Kentucky. Those new $2 billion-plus facilities marked the first chemical weapons sites where DOD did not encounter lawsuits and extensive delays. The negotiation methods used in the chemical weapons dialogue precisely emulate what Steinberg does in his representations of sports agents. Before entering a negotiation, he says, he prepares hard. He clarifies, prioritizes, and dress rehearses the considerations that will ultimately make his client happy. It’s rarely just about the money. It’s the “kwan,” that larger set of personal goals and satisfactions that must also be created.
Moreover, Steinberg never forgets that the other negotiator will believe in his or her reality just as strongly as he and his client believe in theirs. Most important, he never makes a proposal without first doing a presentation. When the specific proposal comes out, the other side will have a context for it.
“Context” is another word for a larger story. The management of story telling is a powerful part of what we do.