The Influential Leader

Most people see negotiation as an isolated pursuit involving buying and selling. In fact, negotiating relationships is an activity we all engage in every day—and is a particularly important skill for leaders. Indeed, I would argue it may be the key skill of a leader.

The job of the leader is to influence others to work together to accomplish an objective. As I have set out in Beyond Dealmaking, the job of the relationship-based negotiator is to resolve differences and find synergies so that all parties can work cooperatively to achieve mutual gain. Not very different, are they? The relationship-oriented negotiator focuses on achieving the best overall outcome, not on winning points, just as the good leader focuses on achieving the most sustainable profits for his or her organization, not short-term gains for a single division or satisfaction for a single customer.

Achieving this level of cohesion throughout the organization is no easy task. The leader must exercise influence in every direction: upward with higher management or the board of directors; laterally with clients or customers, on the one hand, and with colleagues and other division heads on the other; and, of course, downward with staff. To focus on only one of these primary relationships is to put the company at peril. Let’s look at a few examples:

Carly Fiorina was known to be a superb manager of people,  but her neglect of her relationship with HP’s Board of Directors ultimately cost her her job. Toyota showed a surprisingly poor awareness of the importance of customer relations in the recent recall debacle in which apologies came late, explanations even later, and every communication appeared forced and half-hearted. Lehman Brothers went under the first time in 1984 because of implacable hostilities between its traders and investment bankers which ultimately created a dysfunctional internal environment. And we all have stories of leaders who operate on the old command and control system, who sustain their positions only through every higher payoffs.

The answer is that we need to negotiate relationships all the time in every direction. In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a leader whose influencing skills earned him the very highest ranks in both the military and the civilian government, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that, but it’s usually called ‘assault’ – not ‘leadership.’… I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only sort of leadership I know or believe in – or will practice.

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