If you are a “leader” in any sense of the word, the ideas, stories, quotes, and exercises that follow will help you tame ornery problems, build agreements, and facilitate changes in new and better ways. You can use this book when you are negotiating considerations, calming frictions, mending fences, building bridges, or trying to inspire cooperation. You can use it as a general reference. You can scan the table of contents, find what is relevant or what interests you, jump around, read it backwards, or start in the middle. Most of all, you can use it when some specific conflict is “incoming” on your personal radar screen.
In the vast galaxy of leadership practices, the 150 ideas that follow focus on making deals, brokering agreements, and managing the inevitable conflicts that occur in politically charged circumstances. They are about communication, negotiation, problem solving, and “guerilla peace making.” The premise is simple and was best stated by philosopher, psychologist, and educator John Dewey: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity and sets us at noting and contriving."
The book is also about politics. Leadership and politics go hand-in-hand. Politics has been variously defined as war without bloodshed (Mao Tse Tung), the continuation of politics by other means (Carl von Clausewitz), the conduct of public affairs for private advantage (Ambrose Bierce), and the art of looking for trouble and applying the wrong remedy to it (Earnest Benn). The word itself comes from the Greek “polis” meaning the city, state, or collective. It is all about all of us….together. At its core, politics is the business of making difficult choices about the transfer of power, rights, assets, liabilities, and obligations. Politics drives decisions on who gets what, for what purposes, and under what conditions. It is also more obliquely about being “politic,” which could mean that you are judicious, tactful, and sagacious or, depending on context and intent, conniving, unscrupulous, and cunning. I prefer the first set of definitions. It is time to try to restore the word to a better place.
The specific impetus for what follows took place in 2005. The Keystone Center, the organization I am privileged to lead, sponsored a symposium on Capitol Hill called “Political Courage and the Power of Bridge-Building.” The panel of speakers was experienced: Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon); the now politically eclipsed Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho); Representatives Nancy Johnson (R-Connecticut) and Ed Case (D-Hawaii); National Public Radio’s Ron Elving; Heritage Foundation Fellow John C. Hulsman; and moderators Shelby Coffey, a former editor of the Los Angles Times and Washington Post, and Clint Vince, Managing Partner of Sullivan & Worcester.
In that discussion, there was much bemoaning of the loss of bipartisanship and the decline of civility in the Congress. There were also a few hopeful stories about the still practical idea of working together across party lines and ideologies when occasion calls for it. Nancy Johnson talked about the power of new information to bring adversaries together. Ed Case spoke of finding kindred spirits across the aisle. And Ron Wyden told us how big threats can suddenly create the impetus to work together. But Senator Craig also reminded us, rightfully so, that politics is brutal stuff, a full-body contact sport and a hand-to-hand, trench-by-trench combat that stirs things up and inherently produces winners and losers. Craig described how America’s political system was designed to foster argument rather than settle it, how issues must be mobilized and aired, how people must take sides, and how disagreement is the norm in a strong democracy.
Craig’s comments didn’t sit right with me, not because they are wrong but because they are woefully incomplete. Even as he extolled the virtue of political combat, I thought to myself: “That’s really only half of the story. That’s the half that gets all the attention. In a vibrant political system you need people and issues that raise the debate and challenge the status quo. But you also need the other half: people who can build bridges, reach agreements, and make artful deals that advance everyone’s mutual interests and needs.” That was the genesis of this book and ultimately what it is about.
However you think about it, “politics” is a tricky piece of business because it takes place on a constantly shifting and usually asymmetric chess board. This means that achieving something that resembles the common good is an adaptive task that needs great care. For me, a new and useful set of rules -– the ones that I focus on in this book -- go like this:
- Apply “guerilla” tactics to managing conflict. Under the surface of every issue there are deep, but satiable needs. The need for safety, continuity, amity, and more are universal. The good solution, the finely crafted bargain, the wise agreement responds to those.
- Be “Protean.” To be protean is to be flexible. Check your ego and your orthodoxies at the door.
- Dive into the Fray. Assess the situation and, at the right moment, become a guerilla problem solver or a tactical dispute-seeking missile, which ever is more appropriate. Plunge yourself into conflicts that have the greatest possibility of advancing the most good for the most people with the most agreement.
- Practice Paradox. Watch for key contradictions, polarities, dilemmas, and inconsistencies. Get comfortable with paradox and help others stay in the gray zone for awhile. If it’s an “either/or” proposition, work both sides of the street and invent new possibilities.
- Relish the Pragmatic. Cling to your ideals but stay mindful of day-to-day practicalities which can defeat or accelerate your highest aspirations. The combination of unwavering optimism and a hard eye on what needs to be done is a powerful leadership trait.
- Assault the Problem. Frame problems as questions to be answered rather than wars to be won. Make the problem the common enemy and get all sides to undertake the attack together.
- Create Process. Serve as architect-at-large but involve everyone else who has a stake to help design and participate fully in the forums you create. There is great wisdom in the collective and your job is to uncork it.
- Work Together. The spirit of teamwork is powerful. Set the example and play nicely with others. Then, help others do the same thing knowing that great teams are temporary and cannot be perpetuated forever.
- Communicate Artfully. What is said and done in the heat of conflict is remembered. Use your greatest skill in private and public discussions to help others communicate what their heart and mind tell them needs to be said.
- Find the Facts. Information is power and information jointly arrived at is especially powerful. Clarity and factual understanding are the antecedents of smart deals. The great enemy of a good agreement is information that turned out to be missing, wrong, or misapplied.
- Govern Lightly. Bearing some portion of responsibility for the destiny of the collective is an honor and a burden. Practice little p politics and the big P politics will work themselves out.
- Hatch a Plan. The precursor to coordinated action is a powerful vision and a smart strategy to implement it. The inspired vision and well conceived, collaboratively crafted plan creates new beginnings.
- Turbo-Charge Negotiations. Done badly, bargaining is awkward, a sad tangle of bad process, irrelevant substance, and fractured relationships that produce bad results. Help others get to the finish line when their negotiations are in jeopardy.
- Choreograph the Dance. Good conflict management is good stage-craft. Arrange a sequence and manage the process. Maneuver the pieces together so it all appears seamless.
- Move Beyond Deadlock. Expect impasse. It is inevitable. It is also usually temporary. Breakdowns are not aberrations. They are solutions in progress.
The 15 chapters that follow are an embellishment of these practices and if you have a specific issue in front of you (or one that is on the edge of your radar screen and “incoming”) the exercises at the end of each section will help you get ready before all hell breaks loose.
Political conflicts come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and textures. They all count, of course. In a conversation in Boulder one evening, Professor Guy Burgess from the University of Colorado put it this way: “Conflict twists your mind and leads you to do dumb and dangerous things.” We need to prevent dumbness and danger and help people re-capture the missed opportunities that occur when they fail to work together and do what was within their grasp all the time. With care and skill, I optimistically assert that all manner of political conflicts can be handled to better effect. It is an outlook on things, no less than a set of skills and tools.
In Hawaii, where I come from, it is imperative to acknowledge personal and intellectual debts and thank everyone for help requested or offered. I have tried to reference all sources and reiterate some of those in the suggested readings sections but I am especially grateful to Jim Melamed, Lucy Moore, Robert Benjamin, Daniel Bowling, Chris Honeyman, Paul Cosgrave, Robbie and Cindy Alm, Kem Lowry, Howard Gadlin, Tina Spiegel, Ann Gosline, Tom Fee, Shelby Coffey, Doug Thompson, Howard Bellman, Louis Chang, Larry Susskind, John Reiman, David Newton, Glen Sigurdson, Gregory Bourne, David Greenberg, Juliana Birkhoff, William Ury, Robert Fisher, Jayne Docherty, Sir Arnold Amet, Randy Roth, Christine Scanlan, and Don Greenstein. A special thanks to Helen Littrell for her editing help and my colleagues and friends at The Keystone Center who continue to fearlessly dive into the most turbulent political conflicts imaginable and accomplish great things. If I have inadvertently left anyone out, please forgive me.