Political Intelligence

The traits that make or break leaders

Compromise Is Never a Dirty Word

Flexibility is at least as important as ideology in political leadership.

Every election is a battle of ideas. It's presented as a zero sum game between two competing sets of philosophies and, ultimately, we are asked to make a choice between them. We see it as having a binary outcome where there will be one winner and one loser, and it's the winner's agenda that gets enacted. Many aspects of life might feel like this too; whether it's at work, among peers or in relationships. But it is as false in everyday life as it is in politics. Nothing is ever black and white, and pretending they are is rarely useful. Being open to learning through the process, what ever that may be, is key to good decision making and it is also fundamental to creative, emotionally intelligent leadership. That's why, regardless of the contrasting platforms politicians resurrect around an election, good leaders tend to govern in a very different and more accommodating way, allowing a new synthesis to emerge from the legislative struggle itself. This has certainly been the style of the Obama Presidency.

Four years ago the public were unavoidably in the dark about what an Obama Presidency might mean, but now they are certainly not. The campaign officially launched their first ad this week and, watching it, one is immediately struck by the sheer volume of bills that have been passed during Obama's first term. We now have a clear view of what Obama’s core vision is. Undoubtedly, he sees government as a tool for the betterment of people’s lives. The most significant bill he signed into law was the Affordable Care Act providing, among other things, healthcare for tens of millions of Americans who did not have it previously and ceasing the practice of insurance company non-coverage due to pre-existing conditions. Bills like this are the hallmarks of an administration determined to use the levers of government for public good. But in most cases, significant compromise was still involved. Nobody at the start of the process could have predicted how it turned out at the end.

Let's not forget how Obama frequently received criticism from the left for the series of compromises he was required to make to pass the healthcare bill into law, which is, after all, essentially a regulatory framework for a still entirely privately delivered healthcare market. Despite his campaign rhetoric, therefore, Obama does not believe—and never did believe - that he or his side have all the answers. Compromise is built in to his world view and it is quite possible that this is precisely why he has remained so resiliently popular with a large section of the electorate through thick and thin.

In many senses, Obama has been the Compromiser-In-Chief, yet his achievements, as listed in the ad, have been substantial by any measure. Flexibility is at least as important as ideology in leadership. So far the evidence seems to suggest that Mitt Romney shares this attitude too. His problem, however, is that the party he represents considers it heresy: Compromise is a dirty word in today's GOP. The challenge for Romney in this election will be to turn round and promote his ability to compromise as a positive, instead of so determinedly hiding it. Many middle of the road Americans will appreciate him for it. Ironically, being his authentic self is likely to be the best shot Romney has at winning this election. And the same goes for Obama too.

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Russell Razzaque, M.D. is a British psychiatrist and author of Obama Karma: Lessons on Living Inspired by the 44th President.

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