Effective Leadership Depends on Art of Compromise

In talking about her new book, The Spirit of Compromise, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann notes, "The problem and the promise [in American democracy] is that you have to compromise." Much has been said recently about the increasingly rigid orthodoxy that we are seeing in our national dialogue -- and the ensuing difficulty in resolving a host of issues critical to our country's future.

During the hearings on his nomination for vice president in 1973, then-Congressman Gerald Ford noted, "I believe in friendly compromise. . . Compromise is the oil that makes governments go." Ford, who also served for a number of years as a trustee of Albion College, was a master of the art of compromise. He was successful as a Congressional leader because he understood the necessity of compromise in creating change and serving the public interest.

While demonizing one's opponents may be useful for short-term political gains, I believe that effective leadership must routinely involve an ability to compromise in order to achieve lasting solutions to our problems. I also believe that a liberal arts education is an excellent way to develop this talent. We work daily with our students on developing an array of intellectual and social skills that will help them become the type of citizen -- and leader -- that is so desperately needed today.

Here's how:

  • Broadening students' world view. We must look past our own limited outlook and prejudices, and recognize that there may be other perspectives -- as liberal arts colleges teach students to do. This is how compromise begins.
  • Appreciating diversity. Liberal arts education builds an appreciation for diversity in many forms, and we impress on students the need to listen to -- and heed -- what others are saying instead of talking past one another. Compromise grows out of respect for others' positions.
  • Fostering an analytical approach. The ability to think independently and critically analyze arguments is fundamental to a liberal arts education. Our students learn that the world is dynamic and that, as new knowledge becomes available or situations evolve, they must be flexible and adapt to change.
  • Encouraging a problem-solving mindset. Many decisions in life are not black-and-white but are tempered in shades of gray. Liberal arts education focuses on solving real-world problems intelligently, and with an appreciation that sometimes there is no one answer to complex questions. Our students learn that thoughtful individuals must come together to craft solutions that will truly serve the public good.
  • Assessing values and beliefs. Liberal arts education helps students more clearly define their own values and beliefs. There are times to stand on principle as well as times to compromise -- the key is to know which situations demand which response. Or as Amy Gutmann suggests, you must understand when "to use your principles as guideposts rather than as roadblocks."

Learning the art of compromise should be more than an intellectual exercise for our students. Liberal arts colleges must give students the opportunity to practice this and other leadership skills while still in college. One of the ways we accomplish this goal at Albion College is through our Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. We show students how to model engaged citizenship and thoughtful compromise through simulations of government in action, through internships that immerse them in public service, and through observing firsthand various leadership styles -- from grassroots activists to high-ranking politicians in Congress.

Both in the classroom and through real-world experiences, our students begin to master the skills that are essential for them to become successful leaders. And we seek to show them that genuine leadership is built, not on narrow self-interest and political orthodoxy, but rather on serving the interests of the broader community and ultimately advancing the public good.