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 Alex Greenon / 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.


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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


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.