I will never forget the first time I went to Japan on business. I shudder to think that it was almost 20 years ago. I was excited as you can imagine. So excited in fact I forgot to get a travel visa. Sad, but true. I had to drive my car like a maniac to the Japanese embassy in Downtown Los Angeles and get the visa stamp on my passport then drive like a nut-head back to the airport where, unbelievably, I made my flight with just minutes to spare.
Never the less when I arrived I was greeted by Mr. Uyama. He was friendly but rather stoic. I would learn much from him in the ensuing years but he said something that I will always remember. He said, “Mark,” in his excellent but slightly broken English. “There is one thing that we just cannot do under any circumstances. I hate this more than anything. That is compromise. We must NEVER compromise.” He spat out the word like it was the most disgusting, vulgar action on the planet. I was shocked. I had always thought that compromise was good.I came to find out that what Mr. Uyama meant is that we wouldn’t just give up on an initiative without exhaustive due diligence. This makes sense. But what I also found out was that this could be a pretty inflexible strategy. Despite our best efforts and careful planning we may, as leaders, find ourselves facing circumstances in which the path ahead is far from clear. At times we have to resort to improvisation and creativity to find the best possible solution. Often times looking for the solution is the very thing that stands in the way of resolution. In fact, we should more often than not spend more time and effort examining the causes of the problem.Separating symptoms from causes is often times more art than science. It is critical that we understand the difference between a symptom that accompanies a circumstance and the root cause of a problem. This requires careful investigation and study. There is a relatively easy way to determine the difference between symptoms and causes. When we change the “cause” the problem, ceases to exist permanently. When we change a “symptom” chances are the problem will return. At times we can use compromise to root out the difference.In his book, “Leading Quietly,” Joseph Badaracco talks about how we can use compromise to allow the best solution to rise to the surface and to do so in a way that reduces risk. Compromise, not in the sense of immoral decision making like we’ve seen as of late with companies like Enron. As leaders we should do the right thing, not half of it. I am speaking rather about the kind of compromise that occurs in fruitful negotiation. This kind of compromise is rooted in ethical, well-informed decision-making. Fair compromise often rests on a leader’s ability to motivate participants to see circumstances from a unique perspective. They present a new line of vision which redefines the problem in a different light and leads to a mutually beneficial compromise.In many circumstances compromise is the beginning of wisdom in resolving difficult problems. King Solomon of the Bible was said to be the wisest man that ever lived. One day he had to decide which of two women was the true mother of a child. Both of the women claimed that the child was theirs and they came to Solomon for his wise judgment. They didn’t have blood tests in those days and he had no way to determine which one was the true mother. So the king proposed a horrific alternative: “Cut the baby in two and give one half to each women.” Of course the true mother cried out at this terrible proposition and gave the baby up to the imposter. This told Solomon all he needed to know and he reunited the child with her real mother.Solomon was a powerful king. He could have “faked it” and guessed which was the real mother. But he would know it was fake and many others would suspect as much. Eventually this would undermine his authority and the system of justice in the land. He could have looked for some technicality or taken the child from both women which would have separated a family and perpetrated a greater injustice. But Solomon was truly a wise man. He went beyond the legal issues to the issues of the heart. As a result one women demonstrated her love and devotion and the other her bitterness and envy.Are you facing a difficult decision? Does the road ahead look kind of murky? Think about how you can use ethical compromise to root out the cause of the problem and watch the solution rise to the surface.