Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Compromise -- good idea or bad idea?

Whether in the board room, the Congress, or dinner table debate, at some point someone will suggest a compromise. Then what happens? Some folks believe you should stick to your 'principles' and never give an inch. Others just want the debate to end so they'll jump at the chance. Neither extreme leads to good decisions or even good compromises. The U.S. Congress is debating health care/insurance reform at the moment and we see both types of extreme behavior on both sides of the aisle. In the end, there will be some sort of legislation passed and it will be a compromise...that's the way the system is set up. In fact, it took a major compromise to set up Congress in the first place.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was not that much different from today's Congress. It had a variety of opinions and special interests contending with one another. It had people who were adamant on many issues. Perhaps the most contentious debate was around representation --would it be equal numbers of representatives from each state or representation based on population. The smaller states wanted equal representation as they currently had in the Congress formed under the Articles of Confederation. They feared the power of the larger states and believed they would be gobbled up without equal voting power. The large states had been constantly frustrated by the ability of small states to stimmey legislation because representation did not rest on population. Both sides drew a line in the sand...or the dusty, musty floor of the Convention meeting room. This contintious issue threatened to derail the entire convention and people were ready to bring it to a close rather than give even an inch.

The arguments were bitter, lofty, extreme, and heart-felt. Virtually no one was neutral. Then on June 11, Roger Sherman (that stern looking gentleman above) put forward a motion. It was not accepted immediately and needed to go through more debate, but in the end, the Great Compromise, as it came to be called, would be accepted. The two houses of the new Congress would be selected differently. The upper House (Senate) would be based on equal representation for each state. The lower House (Representatives) would be chosen by population. It was not an easy compromise but it was 'great.' There was lots more discussion -- the devil is always in the details -- but the compromise stuck.

It's impossible to predict what might have happened had Sherman not stepped forward and had not the majority of votes finally gone for the Compromise. Many historians believe the Convention would have broken up and the fragile Union would have quickly disintegrated and been divided up by the European powers perched on the borders.

Almost exactly one year later the required ninth state ratified the new 'compromise' Constitution and the news was officially handed to Congress July 2, 1788. That compromise saved the Union because the delegates were able to back off a little from their 'principles' and see that survival of the country -- the greater good -- was more important.

So the question for each of us today, whether in our companies, nonprofit boards or government entities, is the same one that faced the framers. Is this the point to give up 100% of nothing to embrace 50% of something that will serve the greater good? This is never an easy question because it means we won't get everything, or even a lot, of what we want. Can we live with it? Can we support it so that we will make progress, if haultingly? For strategic leaders, like Sherman and James Madison, George Washington, Ben Franklin and others at the Convention, the answer was yes. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Will your followers, staff or constituents be able to thank you for compromising for the greater good?

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