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How Do Leaders Use Compromise and Consensus?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 23, 2018 5 min read
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A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Beneath the surface of the national shutdown, is a nagging question. It is one that has haunted our history and that of other nations as well. Is compromise a necessary dimension of a system where multiple perspectives are welcomed or is it a convenience that has too often leads us away from a necessary conflict of principles and into perpetual gray and even avoidance? Many of our policies and decisions involve a process of compromise and, sometimes, we find ourselves so committed to an idea, a position that we cannot engage in a process that causes us to give up some piece of what we see a right and good. Or, is that when we become obstructionists to those who want a deal?

Certainly, it seems the age old practice of give and take, of compromise, is now broken in Washington, DC. It caused us to ask a group of young educators the questions, “Is the ability to compromise dead in the US?” “How is compromise reached?” Answers varied. The one that follows is a sample of the general response.

I believe the ability to compromise still exists, although the willingness may be stunted. The current government shutdown shows that while compromise hasn’t happened yet to end the shutdown, there are still people who are working to end it. While it is unfortunate that the Senate is reactive instead of proactive, I believe eventually we will find a compromise because the stakes are too high. This does show that there is an example of pushing beyond the limit before giving up a win and settling for an understanding. I see school leadership as similar to government leadership. Each group of stakeholders has a goal in mind, but the path to the goal differs. We, as leaders, must find a path that we can all follow, even if it is not the preferred path for all parties, it is a path we can all navigate successfully to achieve the end goal.

What we find of most interest is the ‘what’ in the answer. It explains the author’s description of compromise. There is an assumption of agreement on the ‘what’, on the end goal. Most people in the room expressed similar perspective. Leaders and their teachers know what has to be done and expect others including their boards and students to see the same end line. We aren’t sure that is the case but let’s accept their assumption and consider it is the path, the ‘how’, that presents the problem. Another revealing comment above was the line, "...before giving up a win and settling for an understanding.” This may be the most powerful and revealing phrase. It asserts that in every compromise there is a loss. Maybe this is where Washington gets disabled. Compromise can be a process in which everyone wins a little and gives up a bit or it can be framed as a win vs. lose process. It can provoke the strong to revert to, “My way or the highway.” When that happens in governing bodies, usually, over time everyone loses.

Consensus and Compromise

Perhaps leaders who deeply listen to the comment of the young educator might get an insight. Could we marry the processes of consensus and of compromise to benefit our work? Here’s our take away thought and question. If we could get agreement on the ‘what’ by consensus, does that open the door to compromise on the ‘how’? Consensus is based on these three statements...I understand. I can agree. I will support. Merriam-Webster offers these words as synonyms: accord, concurrence, concurrency, agreement, unanimity, and unison. A recent headline read “Lawmakers remain in partisan disputes”. None of the synonyms for consensus apply here. As MLK stated, a leader must be a molder of consensus. Anyone who has done pottery knows that it is clay, the potter’s skillful hands, a wheel, a kiln and a glaze that produces unique and stunning pottery. The leader who molds consensus is one with skill and vision, one who works with people and honors them while asking them to hear another. It is one who discerns well and can separate the wheat from the chaff. The ‘what’ is the essence. It matters most. If decision making begins there and keeps returning there as a litmus test of authenticity, perhaps a bit of give and take on the ‘how’ gets easier.

School leaders, as all leaders, need to respect the opposition as well as those who are supportive. That is unless a leader believes he or she can be successful by leading a part of the community and serving a part of the student body. Educators know they are responsible for all so we cannot allow the luxury of dismissing those who see the world through differing lenses. Care, listening, and understanding are the foundational attributes that begin to help those involved. Once a safe space is established, where all opinions are welcomed, it is the finesse of the leader that helps mold the group into a shared place. That subtle art of leadership makes the real difference. Where people can express and examine thinking and maybe clear out the bias and influences that cause them to seek a win or impose a loss to a place fertile ground is found for agreement.

In the End

Building consensus requires the leader to be certain everyone can let go, understand, agree, and support an idea. Building consensus is a social/emotional skill, not an administrative one. Building consensus is accomplished only when the goal is the same, the common ground is clearly articulated and agreed upon and all involved are heard, understood, respected, included, and all leave the room having experienced the same process. When, in MLK’s words, molding consensus is accomplished, the pathway is cleared for movement forward. Educators can model and teach this. As we have said so many times before, we have the opportunity to develop the next generation of leaders, of consensus builders and compromisers or not.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by catkin courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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