All Articles Leadership Management How the art of compromise has redefined my leadership

How the art of compromise has redefined my leadership

Compromise is essential for business success, especially because we're rarely the sole decision-makers.

6 min read


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During a commencement speech at Howard University, President Barack Obama urged the next generation of thinkers and leaders to seek justice, achieve peace, and find success through compromise.

I found his advice particularly inspiring because I believe compromise is essential to effective leadership. Although millennials don’t yet have the experience necessary to dominate the business world, mastering the art of compromise could be what pushes them over the top.

Through the years, compromise has been one of the greatest tools at my disposal. It’s allowed me to assemble strong teams, broker mutually beneficial deals, gather innovative ideas, work with dream clients and gain advantages over our competition. But I’ve also learned what happens when you don’t compromise effectively. During the early years of our company’s growth, we had a good-hearted but underperforming employee who made mistakes that cost us business. I was torn about what to do.

Although I knew we needed to part ways, I kept this individual on and hoped that, with some coaching, things would work out. But by compromising my standards, I put the company in danger of losing its reputation for excellence and, possibly, more business. Fortunately, I took action before that happened. More importantly, I gleaned valuable lessons from this situation and others that will help even the greenest leaders sharpen their compromise instincts and drive their companies forward.

Surround yourself with people who have strong points of view

During the 2016 vice presidential debate, moderator Elaine Quijano asked the nominees how they would unify the country following a contentious campaign. SEn. Tim Kaine ended his response with a powerful statement: “…it’s fine to be a Democrat or Republican or independent, but after Election Day, the goal is work together.”

This isn’t a novel idea. President Abraham Lincoln famously built his presidential cabinet out of both his peers and his political rivals, using supporting and opposing opinions to shape his decisions throughout his tumultuous presidency.

I admire this bold approach to leadership because it demonstrates the importance of engaging with others, regardless of their views. Once, I was working with a colleague who held very different business priorities than I did. I was tempted to focus only on my priorities, but I knew I needed to understand his point of view before taking action.

Because few leaders are the sole decision makers for their teams, it’s vital to understand how to interact with and learn from people with challenging approaches to problem-solving. You don’t have all the answers; you never will. Others bring different ideas to the table, many of which are as good as yours, if not better. Setting your ego aside and working together for the greater good will ultimately make you a better leader.

After hearing my colleague out, we combined our ideas to help us win as a company. It’s about respecting other people’s viewpoints, not disregarding them just because they’re different.

Stay flexible — when there are good reasons to do so.

From the crisis in Syria to the drama of Brexit to the volatile U.S. election, political and economic shifts are making the global economy more complex. At the same time, the expanding impact of technology and digital media is creating increasingly diverse and fragmented audiences. Only those who are fluent in compromise — and have a strong support team behind them — will be able to thrive in this global environment and find new avenues of success.

As your company’s leader and chief brand ambassador, it’s your job to know when and how to compromise and when to stand your ground. You never want to be so determined to be right that you miss an opportunity for a win, but some things aren’t worthy of compromise.

Years ago, a prominent prospective client approached us about working with him. It was a promising opportunity, but something seemed off. He spoke in an overly optimistic manner and downplayed the potential obstacles he was facing. I wondered whether our partnership could succeed.

Shortly after we began work, I got my answer. He was demanding and manipulative. Unexpectedly, he tried to accelerate the timeline we’d agreed upon and told me the budget he’d agreed to was more than he wanted to pay. Even still, I didn’t want to give up. I was determined to fix the situation and didn’t want to admit that I should’ve listened to my gut.

I wanted the prestige of working with this client, but once I saw how bad the situation was, I fired him as quickly as possible. No potential gains could ever be worth compromising our expectations for integrity and trust, which are foundational to good partnerships.

Reverse-engineer your compromise — start with the strategy

You may be thinking, “Compromise sounds useful, but how can I improve my chances for a positive outcome?”

Something I’ve found helpful is to begin with an overarching strategy and then work backward to develop a plan to get there. This approach sets out the rationale for the compromise, enables others to understand your thinking and makes it easier to get broad-based support.

However, getting others on board is often challenging, especially if your plan overrides existing priorities or initiatives. It’s much easier if you show how the compromise will help the group achieve a larger goal, such as hitting a companywide revenue mark.

Another difficult situation that usually requires compromise is restructuring, especially if it means some leaders will lose certain responsibilities or privileges. But if you can detail how their new positions will tap into their strengths to move the organization forward and boost their careers in the process, you have a better chance of getting their buy-in.

Your success as a leader can hinge on your artful use of compromise. If you apply these strategies to your own leadership approach, you’ll be more effective during negotiations and become a forward-moving leader.


Elise Mitchell is the CEO of Mitchell, an award-winning strategic communications firm. She is an accomplished strategic communications professional and business leader whose entrepreneurial spirit helped build Mitchell into one of the top 10 fastest-growing firms globally and a two-time Agency of the Year winner, honored by PRWeek and The Holmes Report. In recognition of her accomplishments, Elise has received numerous awards, including being named PRWeek Agency Public Relations Professional of the Year and a Top 50 Power Player in PR. Elise’s upcoming book, “Leading Through the Turn,” will be available for download in January 2017. Preorder the book here.