Four Leadership Lessons from Debt-Ceiling Brinkmanship (and Baseball)

For many observers of the rancorous partisanship surrounding the budget crisis in Washington, leadership is hardly the first concept that comes to mind, although President Obama's efforts toward a workable framework exemplify CEO responsibility.

But sometimes the worst of circumstances can teach the best lessons. After relieving anxiety over the American economy with a few Boston Red Sox games, I see four things leaders in any field can learn from the evolving conflicts and compromises:

Survival is more important than heroism. As a wise mentor once said, the first rule for change agents is "Stay alive." That's a lot more important than showing off. If you can't force a major change or get the best possible deal, a lesser deal that keeps doors open for the future means living to fight another day. Baseball analytics show that getting on base is among the most important ways to win the game. If you strike out while trying to hit a home run, the whole side might go down. If you go for a lesser way to get on base, such as taking a walk, you keep the game alive. Sometimes backing down averts a major crisis and keeps the debate alive.

Walk the fine line between standing on principles and stubborn ideology. If you favor one side of an argument, naturally you think that there are principles on your side but rigid adherence to impractical ideology on the other side — your guy is noble; the other guy is stubborn. Sometimes common ground is hard to find. But just as baseball pitchers are more successful when they add a little variation to their repertoire, there should always be room for judgment. It's a cliché to say that negotiations work better when you find common ground, but indeed, finding an even bigger principle that allows compromise for the sake of saving an institution can loosen rigidity without weakening principled stands.

Everyone needs to take away a little something. Winner-take-all competitions leave a festering residue of resentment. Face-saving compromises with consolation prizes and dignity are important. This is often under-rated in the desire to make everything a contest and find one victor. But it is especially true if you are going to work together again. Moreover, players might switch sides, whether on the next issue or in the next season. Let everyone find their silver lining. They have to show their supporters that their efforts mattered.

Leaders must be calm professionals. Even when spectators heckle or partisan supporters make impossible demands and clamor for crushing the other side, leaders must see the bigger picture, think longer-term, and consider a range of consequences. CEOs must remain on course when analysts questions strategic directions that require short-term sacrifices, such as Indra Nooyi's efforts to shift PepsiCo's investments to its new nutrition group. Great leaders, like great athletes, learn to shut out the noise to focus on their vision of what's best for the institution. This might mean compromises, as I've indicated, and as Nooyi is making in also increasing advertising for traditional Pepsi soft drinks. But leaders can't be driven by panic, hysteria, mobs, or instant polling. Ultimately, spectators are fickle, sentiments shift, and leaders will be measured on performance. Not on winning an argument, but on delivering results.

Politicians and CEOs alike don't always act like leaders or exemplify these lessons. But the rest of us can urge them to engage in better behavior, and consider these lessons whenever contentious situations arise.

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