Leaders are faced with a myriad of decisions every day and many times will have to compromise to make the business machine run smoothly.

By definition a compromise is:  a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.  (Dictionary.com)

However, there is another, alternative definition with a negative impact:  an endangering, especially of reputation; exposure to danger, suspicion, etc. (Dictionary.com)

Leaders must be mindful and diligent about which definition of compromise they are facing when asked to make concessions in the workplace.

Settling Differences

By this definition, we all make compromises each and every day.  How many times as leaders have we had our calendars full and been double-booked for meetings.  Or how about not even at work?  How about at home when multiple kids have to be in multiple places at the same time?  Do you miss the awards ceremony? Or the piano recital?  When both spouses want to be at both events, who does what?  It generally results in a “divide and conquer” and the compromise comes in the determination of who goes where.

Or, in the workplace, you have the mandatory meeting when one of your service agents comes to you advising an irate client is on the phone and only wants to speak to you.  What to do?  My personal opinion is you take the phone call and keep your client happy.  This may seem like an obvious solution but, depending on your direct supervisor, this may be the wrong choice.  I had a manager like this once.  Come to the meeting at all costs, disregard the customer and delegate the phone call to a senior staff member.

Did you compromise?  Of course you did, just not in the way you intended.  You see, now you’ve compromised your brand name in the eyes of your staff.  John won’t take the tough call and runs to hide in a meeting.  Not the impression you want your employees to have of you.

Compromise also means that you understand that you aren’t going to win every battle and that not everything is going to go your way.

I generally shy away from discussing politics as my beliefs are my own.  But I’m going to dip my toe into the water here.  Years ago, Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet them worked together to make sure the country’s business got done.  Consider this excerpt from an October 5, 2012 NY Times article written by Tip O’Neill’s son, Thomas P. O’Neill:

As Washington has become increasingly partisan, and increasingly deadlocked, a misty aura has grown around the O’Neill and Reagan years. That mist obscures some hard truths — and harder words.

Let’s not forget my father’s blunt descriptions of his ideological opposite as “Herbert Hoover with a smile” or “a cheerleader for selfishness.” He referred to the village of Reagan’s Irish forebears — Ballyporeen — as “the valley of the small potatoes.” Two phrases I often heard him use about Reagan: “Trust, but verify,” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” My father was not pleased to be compared by the president to the character in the video game Pac-Man — “a round thing that gobbles up money,” or to being the butt of G.O.P. political advertising.

They were two men from humble Irish-American backgrounds who did not back down from a fight, and their worldviews were poles apart. As someone who watched the back-and-forth from a front-row seat, I know they each believed deeply in what they fought for — and that each had deep concern about where the other’s political views could take this country. My father was not simply tossing off a glib phrase when he said that Reagan wanted to rejigger this nation’s tax structure to throw “one big Christmas party for the rich.” Tip O’Neill detested Reagan-driven policies that left more money in the pockets of the wealthy — and cut the social programs for the elderly and the poor that he fought so hard to create.

As speaker of the House, he was obliged to fight what he and his party believed were disastrous steps being taken by the Republicans. My father fought tirelessly to see that Reagan’s policies did not run roughshod over the disenfranchised. The president fought too, pushing back against spending he believed was out of control, and a social system he thought created dependency.

On occasion, these dueling philosophies brought both men to the mat — to the point where neither would back down. My father stood firm against deep cuts and other proposed changes to Social Security, believing in his core that the elderly poor would bear too great a burden. “I haven’t been in public service all my life to watch anybody rip up everything I’ve stood for,” I remember him saying. The political battle that resulted, in 1982, was among the most bruising my father and Reagan ever had.

In the fall of 1986, they waged war again over the renewal of the Clean Water Act. Just months before my father retired, after 34 years in the House, leaders in Congress hammered out a compromise agreement that seemed to satisfy all sides; the bill passed in the House by vote of 408 to zero, and in the Senate by 96 to none. When the president later vetoed the bill, my father didn’t relent — urging his former colleagues to override the veto from the sidelines. I remember some of what he said at the time. None of it is printable.

But such unyielding standoffs were, in fact, rare. What both men deplored more than the other’s political philosophy was stalemate, and a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward. There were tough words and important disagreements over everything from taxation to Medicare and military spending. But there was yet a stronger commitment to getting things done.”

Such compromise is rare today, especially in Washington.  Both parties are so entrenched in their belief that their was is the “only” way, nothing substantive gets done in Congress anymore.  And it’s frustrating because it is the American people, the general public that are held hostage to their ideologies  Perhaps, each party should go back and re-read this article and study history a little bit.

Let no one think that flexibility and a predisposition to compromise is a sign of weakness or a sell-out. – Paul Kagame

The Loss of Values

This is the definition of compromise that leaders should not make.  Great leaders are authentic and true to themselves and their ethics. The trust our companies, our colleagues, our friends and our families puts in us is very precious.  Sometimes all we have is our good name.

We are faced with difficult decisions all the time.  Many of these come with gray line choices.  We can take the easy way out and make the issue go away, or we can make the hard choice that, more often than not, is the ethical choice.

I’ve frequently told my children that they will, inevitably make a bad decision in their lives.  When that happens, they can opt to tell the truth and take responsibility, or they can take the far less painful road and try escaping undetected.  I tell them that I will likely be upset at what they have done but I will be FAR MORE upset if they lie to me about it.

Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got. – Janis Joplin

For some, this compromising of ethics is second nature.  I would maintain that if that is the case, they really have no ethics to begin with.

Personally, I find it much easier to face my family and look myself in the mirror knowing I have not compromised in the ethics/values space.

In the end, leaders are faced with two versions of compromise.  Do good leaders compromise?  Yes and no.  Yes, they must compromise in their day to day management in terms of the normal give and take of running a business or a team.  No, they must NEVER compromise their values.  All offices have eyes and ears.  Making the wrong choice does not go unnoticed.