Negotiation and Leadership Skills: Jerry Brown Re-Frames a Deal at High Speed

How leadership techniques and negotiation strategies helped push high-speed rail forward

By — on / Leadership Skills

Starting construction on an 800-mile rail network in the world’s 8th largest economy without the funds in place to finish the job may seem crazy, but in California Governor Jerry Brown’s case it was a calculated gamble by a seasoned leader intent on winning a long-term negotiation. Luckily, he had the leadership skills to get it done.

America’s First High Speed Rail System

In 2008, Californians voted to set aside $10 billion to build America’s first high-speed rail system. When he took office two years later, Brown enthusiastically joined their cause, making it one of his signature initiatives. But Republican threats to block additional funding for the project prompted him to do something unexpected. Instead of negotiating with his opponents over the numbers, the governor headed to the fields near Fresno and broke ground on the first section of track.

Real Leaders Negotiate

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Republican Opposition

From the beginning, Brown knew that support from Washington could be necessary to make high-speed rail a reality in the Golden State. What he didn’t anticipate was that Republicans would firmly control both chambers of Congress when the time came to start raising funds.

Soon after their election victory in the prior November, Congressional Republicans began looking for the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) with the governor. Their answer was to withhold funding until the 76-year-old Brown’s fourth term—likely his last—is up in 2018.

Re-Shape the Deal in a Negotiation

Faced with stiff opposition and declining public support for the project, Brown needed a way to get Republicans back to the table under favorable conditions. To do it, he took a creative look at his options away from the bargaining table, and used them to reframe the negotiation.

Many people believe that a negotiation only happens when the parties are sitting across from one another, hammering out an agreement. In actuality, negotiation experts strongly advise that you take into account decisions that are made before you even sit down across from a counterpart. Since Brown’s opponents might never come to the table, he needed to envision setup moves that would allow him to design a deal that would pressure them to do so under conditions favorable to his desired outcome.

This may seem risky, but taking stock of the entire scope of a negotiation requires broad thinking, not just about the people who are at the table, but about the issues and realities that bring them there in the first place.

Brown Begins Construction

By starting construction, Brown used tactics and setup moves that weakened the Republicans’ BATNA. With contracts out to bid, equipment in the fields, and jobs being created, the governor could form a supportive coalition that raised the stakes for stopping the project. This means that Republican lawmakers would no longer withholding funding for a proposal. Instead, they threatened to de-fund a multi-billion dollar project that was already being built.

Using Leadership to Break Barriers to Negotiation

While it may have seemed like hubris, Brown’s pre-emptive move in the Central Valley was actually a shrewd example of situational leadership skills. Congressmen work in coalitions, each representing the needs and interests of a district in a large governing body, far from their districts in California. They may share constituents with the governor, but Brown has a natural advantage on state-wide projects.

With a greater ability to act unilaterally and reach all Californians, Brown likely assessed that the brass tacks promise of the finished project’s rewards would ultimately force some congressmen to negotiate, weakening their coalition.

Reaching a Negotiated Agreement: Takeaways for Negotiators and Leaders Alike

The negotiating tactics and leadership styles Brown used to turn the other side’s alternatives to his own advantage have taken years to hone. An air of celebrity surrounded the young governor when he was first elected to two terms in 1975. While he relied on charismatic leadership qualities at the time, when he returned to office in 2011, he was more cautious and pragmatic. Befitting a more seasoned politician, he relied more on transactional leadership tactics to prevail in a series of difficult negotiations over budget deficits with state lawmakers.

Building the railway probably doesn’t signal a shift to a more confrontational style for the erstwhile governor, but it shows that Brown’s leadership qualities, tested over time, afford him options that any negotiator can learn from.

It’s too soon to tell whether Brown’s new framework will get his opponents to come back to the bargaining table. But if their intention was to wait out his political career, he has turned time against them. If they choose not to negotiate today, Republicans hoping for long careers of their own will have to bear the political burden of dismantling California’s high-speed rail alone in the public eye, long after Brown’s own political train has left the station.

Related Article: Negotiation Skills – Are You Really Ready to Negotiate?

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Leadership Styles : Leadership in Crisis Negotiations

Real Leaders Negotiate

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

Originally published in 2015.

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6 Responses to “Negotiation and Leadership Skills: Jerry Brown Re-Frames a Deal at High Speed”

  • If, I was a resident of California and was in support of the high speed railroad I might agree with the supposition that the Governor’s approach was crafty. But, not being a resident of California, it smacks of nothing more than blackmail. As a taxpayer I demand honesty from my government. Public Works projects such as the Big Dig have taught us all that an open money faucet is very hard to close, but essential if we are to control others who have insatiable appetites for other people’s money.

  • You might choose a better example of artful negotiation than Jerry Brown’s HSR project. Why? First and foremost, the program has been built on a foundation of deceit, deception, denial,and blatant lies from the outset. Objective analyses by numerous objective parties, includong the U of California, have demonstrated beyond any doubt the long term infeasibilty of the program. It’s not just a bunch of GOP obstructionists in opposition. Second, this is a better example of political bullying and deceitful public relations than skillful negotiation. Finally, looking ahead, the odds are that the system will never be completed, and will become America’s biggest-ever public boondoggle. Aand all thanks to “negotiation skills” so admired by Harvard?
    Scratch a little deeper before you put the good name of your university on the line by throwing in with this fraudulent exercise.

  • While this may be an example of effective negotiating tactics, this project is a huge boondoggle and a horrible use of tax payer money. This cost has gone up exponentially and the expected performance of the train has gone down at the same rate. It will be cheaper to fly. Republicans recognize that this is a far cry from what has been sold to the California tax payers and are trying to stop the scam. I really hope they succeed.

  • As a resident of California, many refer to this as the “Crazy Train.” I agree with T. Groves, Brown may have used effective negotiation, but at tax payer expense. The cost is well beyond what was originally proposed and services are slated to begin in locals no Californian is eager to visit (Fresno, Bakersfield). As a tax payer, I am in disbelief that this project is still a go.

  • Brown’s folly is a multi-tens of billions waste of the people’s dollars that the entire state but Moonbeam (and contractors and their unions) has turned against. Even the ultra-liberal Lt. Governor has spoken against it. It is the equivalent of deciding to wire Africa for landline telephones and ignore the reality of cell competition and the internet. This ploy was his only move and was only enabled b/c the Cal Supreme Court ignored the specific limiting terms of the approved bond offering. It is a desperate last ditch tactic, but is bound to fail in a Republican Congress that has no use for Moonbeam or California. That hostility is but a small favor to the taxpayers.

  • Last week the Los Angeles Times reported that the first 118-mile segment in the state’s rural Central Valley could run 50% over budget, according to an internal Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) risk analysis that was labelled “confidential.” The FRA also warned that the California High-Speed Rail Authority would miss several deadlines.


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