The tough part of management is not administration; it is people. Well-managed systems may run themselves. People, on the other hand, are not to be managed; they must be led.
Part of the governance process in any organization is getting people to go along with ideas they themselves have not initiated. Good leaders know that most people, if not all, are motivated by self-interest.
While politicians cater to the interest of voters, true leaders understand that governance goes well beyond communication. Good governance requires an ability to see both sides of an issue and work toward an outcome that a majority will support. That requires compromise.
One man who understood the nature of compromise was Dwight Eisenhower. Although Ike knew how to give an order and expect it to be carried out, he was wise enough to realize that life did not operate according to an Army field manual. He learned this first-hand as Supreme Command of Allied Forces in Europe where he had to balance the wishes of his superiors, Roosevelt and Marshall, with the dictates of Churchill and DeGaulle–not to mention the egos of Montgomery and Patton. None (save for Patton) could be ordered; they needed to be placated. That required something that expert leaders do well: listen, learn and understand.
Later in life, Ike, no doubt after serving as president, said, “There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” This statement echoed one by statesman-philosopher Edmund Burke. “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”
Effective compromise is not capitulation; it is a process of accordance with another point of view. We all like to believe that our ideas and opinions are superior but reality dictates they seldom are. Few organizations will run well with one person in charge; smart organization accommodates ideas from all sectors, because in doing so they meet the needs of the people (customers or constituents) they serve.
Compromise does not preclude tough decisions. While it is important to listen to other points of view, a leader is under no obligation to agree. Standing up for what you believe to be the right decision is the very definition of leadership. But standing tall for every idea you have is delusional. Doing so repeatedly drives good people way from you, not to you.
There is an exception to compromise, and Eisenhower knew it well. As preface to his above comment, Ike said, “All human problems, excepting morals, come into the gray areas.” Note the exclusion of morality. Trading in values for expediency–be it for profit or re-election–is what gives compromise a bad name. The rule that good leaders who know how to run an organization follow is simple: compromise on issues, yes; compromise on values, never.
Issues will change by the day. Values–truth, honor, integrity–are forever.
First published in Washington Post 11.22.10