Leading Change: 3 Reasons Why Great Leaders Are Reluctant to Compromise

Leading Change, compromise

The other day I watched a political leader proclaim with great pride what a huge success this compromise was. How they had reached it after long and exhausting negotiations. This was truly a great solution that would change the future forever. People would remember this moment for years to come! But would they really?

Some time ago I heard an executive tell his team that he would never settle for any compromise, not while he was in charge. He would never give up his plan; no one could make him change his mind. This was the only way to create change! But is it really? 

I would argue that both perspectives are rather shortsighted. For leaders it is important to understand the value of compromise, as well as to know its limitations!

There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion about what compromises actually contribute to reaching true and sustainable change.

When you are leading change you will sometimes find yourself in a situation where you have to deal with compromise. Nothing wrong with that. The point is: we tend to overrate the value of compromise, and by doing so we reduce the chance of achieving successful and lasting change. Change that is really inspiring people and is based on true commitment.  

Lets take a closer look at what the word compromise really means. Oxford Dictionaries gives the following description: 

  1. An agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions;
  2. The expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.

In other words, when you reach a compromise both parties poor water into their wine. When reaching a compromise you give something up on both sides, you dont create something together! A compromise is by definition leading to a suboptimal solution. 

Mind you, this doesnt mean that a compromise is always a bad thing! There are situations during change processes where a compromise can be a useful solution, for instance:

  1. When it prevents the emergence of an uncontrollable conflict;
  2. When it helps to unblock a completely stalled situation;
  3. When it enables parties to show a desperately needed short-term success, that helps people to increase motivation and mutual trust;
  4. When it allows both parties to temporarily lower their ambitions in order to meet each other at a lower but mutual level, from which they can restart to build together.

These are examples of situations where a compromise can add value. But in my experience the value will often be only temporary. I have witnessed how a compromise can bring a process a step further, but it does hardly ever create change with long-term and sustainable success. It is a means to an end, not a lasting solution.

Great leaders understand this, and are therefore reluctant to compromise. They have 3 fundamental reasons not to accept a compromise too easily:

1.     Leading change means aligning people around a clear vision

Great leaders know that this requires clear and intense communication, exchange of different points of view, and perseverance (read more about how to create a strong vision). They understand that compromise can easily blur the vision, can create confusion, and therefore undermines the motivation of people.

2.     Leading change means reconciling dilemmas

Successful leaders know that the complexity of change is often caused by the dilemmas we encounter (examples: We want to harmonize processes on a global scale, while keeping our culture of local entrepreneurship intact, We need to intensify our cross-country collaboration, while facing a decrease in performance caused by cross-cultural differences). Great leaders understand that in order to successfully reconcile dilemmas you combine the best of both sides. Which sometimes means creating something new. This can take time and requires intelligent decision-making. But they will not settle for a quick mediocre in-between solution. They only allow compromise as an intermediate step in the process. Not as an end solution that doesnt solve the situation structurally (read about how to reconcile dilemmas in cross-cultural environments).          

3.     Leading change means knowing when to lead the way

Great leaders know that leading change sometimes means they will have to fight for their vision and values. They can sometimes face strong resistance and criticism. At these moments they are fully aware that it is about being able to connect, and to convince others why this change is important. This means they invest energy and time in communication, in increasing mutual understanding, and in strengthening alignment. But they will not compromise their values and vision.

“All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.” – Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think? How do you rate the value of compromise? What points would you add to the list above? Please leave a comment below.

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Photo: the_moment/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Aad is a global leadership advisor, change leader, leadership team facilitator, executive coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with executives and leadership teams globally on three key topics: leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, and post-merger integration. Find out more about Aad and HRSservices. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization feel free to contact him here...

12 Comments on “Leading Change: 3 Reasons Why Great Leaders Are Reluctant to Compromise

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 29 August 2013 | 5blogs

  2. Great article. Perhaps will help to think about something that Dr. Scott Page (University of Michigan) says:
    – Fundamental differences are differences in goals. This is where you cannot compromise. There is no halfway point.
    – Instrumental differences are differences in the ways in which goals are achieved. This is a great area for working to build a better way. You can think of that as compromising. A better way would be (I think) to think of this as using the instrumental differences to find even better ways to achieve the fundamental goal.


  3. Thanks for sharing these fine insights.

    One of the implications of leadership through effective negotiation is that communication of the ultimate agreement is of vital importance.

    Any negotiation between actors who are not entirely mismatched in terms of power will yield some compromises–or, at the least, some end points different from what one initially sought. How the agreement is communicated is important in framing understanding of the compromises. Were the final provisios giving up fundamental goals? Did they advance fundamental goals even while giving way on short term, instrumental goals? Was the other side able to maintain “face,” to have a positive take so that future relationships can be strengthened? Do those you represent comprehend your concessions in a way that maintains their trust in your judgment going forward? Or is the negotiation occurring at the end of one or more relevant relationships, so that you can shove your whole stack on the table in a different way?

    All of this points toward remembering that there is the agreement that you made; the agreement you thought you made; the agreement others think you made. Reconciling these can every bit as important–and is as worthy of a leader’s attention–as the substantive negotiation itself.


  4. Pingback: The Friday Five, Blogs That Matter - August 30, 2013 | The Transformational Leadership Strategist

  5. An excellent thought provoking article. The positives for compromise and the process towards achieving it has great opportunities. One of them being a transformation or improvement of working relationships.
    On an individual level, the self learning experience, is so valuable to the individual and the organisation.


  6. “In other words, when you reach a compromise both parties poor water into their wine. When reaching a compromise you give something up on both sides, you don’t create something together! A compromise is by definition leading to a suboptimal solution.”

    Leadership is not a fixation on the one and only way to do things. In any endeavor there are decisions that are critical and those that tangential. Compromise all day long on items that empower people or increase their buy-in that may be different from the way you think but do not compromise the core tenets of your vision. I would postulate that leadership is more about motivating people by giving them the latitude to make the minor adjustments in your plan that make it their own. Knowing what is core to your vision and having the courage to accept the alternatives that do not impinge on that core is critical to successful and sustainable leadership.


    • Jack
      I just read your input regarding Leadership and compromise and was impressed with your approach, as I entirely agree. The greatest Leaders maintain the belief and vision and core focus while empowering others to make it happen!


  7. Pingback: Compromise: An Indicator of Strong or Weak Leadership | Authentic Leadership Dallas

  8. Pingback: Four Times When Compromising Is Definitely In Your Best Interest - Times Of Mumbai

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