Ask A Negotiation Expert: How leaders negotiate to hang on to leadership

By on / Teaching Negotiation

This month, Jeswald Salacuse, Distinguished Professor at Tufts University, considers the negotiation strategies that embattled leaders use to fend off challenges to their leadership. Salacuse is the author of Real Leaders Negotiate! Gaining, Using, and Keeping the Power to Lead Through Negotiation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Negotiation Briefings: Leaders often seem to make matters worse when their leadership role is threatened. What do leaders fail to understand about challenges to their leadership?

Jeswald Salacuse: Leaders sometimes forget that they hold their position thanks to influential individuals or groups. Others support you not because of your charisma or vision, but because they judge it is in their interests to do so—and their perceptions of those interests can change at any time. Recent firings and departures of the heads of Ford, Uber, Equifax, and Yahoo are reminders that no matter how high you rank in an organization, your lease on leadership can expire at any time, often when you least expect it.

NB: How can leaders ward off challenges?

JS: Few embattled leaders go gentle into retirement’s good night. Most put up a fight. In nations where the rule of law prevails, leaders rely on negotiation strategies to hold on to power. It’s not only important for leaders to know the array of such strategies, but also for their opponents to understand and learn to counter them in order to drive out incompetent, unscrupulous, or unethical leaders.

NB: What specific preventative negotiation strategies do leaders employ to avoid challenges?

JS: As a leader, you should constantly engage in alliance maintenance,
communicating frequently with supporters and moving quickly to deal with any sign of possible defection among directors, officers, and key employees on whom you depend for support. If your supporting alliances remain solid, you will continue to lead. When faced with a challenge to your leadership, first verify that those alliances remain intact. A defection may happen because your opponents have offered your supporters a better deal than they’re getting from you, or they may decide that supporting you has become too costly. For example, the sexual-harassment scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein so threatened the Weinstein Company and its stakeholders that the board, including Weinstein’s own brother, saw no other option but to dump him. Those seeking to unload a leader should first understand the leader’s supporting alliances and then determine what it will take to get him to defect.

NB: What can leaders do when their alliances fray?

JS: When you lose the support of important allies, you can try to negotiate to regain their support by offering them a better deal than what your opponents are offering or you can try to negotiate new alliances. Suppose that the president of a foundation wants to devote funds to a new but controversial initiative, such as advocating for undocumented farm workers, but her strongest supporters are dead set against it. Instead of dropping the idea, she might negotiate a new supporting coalition with other members of the foundation’s governing board or appoint new members who share her views.

NB: How else can leaders negotiate to withstand challenges?

JS: Two other possible strategies are (1) to yield power at a later date or (2) to share leadership. The first happened in May 1994, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were both vying to lead the Labor Party in the United Kingdom. Brown reportedly agreed not to challenge Blair in the next election, as long as Blair agreed that if he became prime minister, he would give Brown broad powers over domestic policy and step down after two terms, setting Brown up as his successor. This is how history played out—except that, reportedly to the great annoyance of Brown, Blair didn’t step down until midway through his third term.

Secondly, under special circumstances, two powerful contenders for leadership may negotiate an agreement to share power by becoming co-leaders. But such arrangements usually develop into a continuing struggle for power, with one of the co-leaders driving out the other.

NB: What if it seems you should step down?

JS: Sometimes moving on may be the best option for all involved, including yourself. When this is the case, try to negotiate the best deal you can to ease your departure. You might seek to retain influence within the organization by playing a role in the selection of your successor. If you had the foresight to make an employment contract providing for termination payments or other benefits if you are fired, you certainly want to ensure that those promises are kept. You may also want to negotiate for other benefits as a condition of your departure, such as the use of an office, glowing recommendations, or placement services. The time to negotiate is before submitting your resignation, when you still have some leverage.

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