This weekend House Speak John Boehner talked with George Stephanopoulos about the debt ceiling and the government shutdown. The tonality was clearly one of brinksmanship. Indeed, brinksmanship has dominated the Washington dialogue for a while now. It has become part of the lingua franca of American politics.
Even though “playing chicken” like this is a risky venture, many leaders rely on it to get things done. This brinkmanship mindset, with the dramatic emphasis on the cliff, is one way that leaders, in frustration and desperation, use crisis as a way of forcing action. Brinksmanship can move agendas that could have stagnated otherwise. In politics, as is presently the case, parties not in the majority can use brinksmanship as a way of enhancing their power. Leaders can use brinksmanship as a way of bringing attention to themselves.
Leaders who use brinkmanship have to be very careful, tactical, and strategic. Misused, it can have precisely the consequences that everyone is working to avoid. And even when you play the brinksmanship game brilliantly, there are still permanent costs that you must be willing to pay.
So Before you use brinkmanship as a call to action or as a way to force a decision, keep the following eight points in mind. (And pray that the politicians in Washington are doing so now.)
Make sure there really is a cliff. If you try too often to stir up panic about the impending doomsday, your leadership credibility will suffer.
Do not bluff. Although bluffing is a useful negotiation tactic in many circumstances, it is not part of the brinkmanship strategy. In the do-or-die scenario, the cost of having your bluff called could be catastrophic. You may be forced to go over the cliff and live with the consequences.
Keep the collective interest in mind. For brinkmanship to be effective, you need the support of those who will be affected. It is critical that stakeholders and supporters do not see brinkmanship as a self-serving exercise in opportunism but rather an effort to solve a problem that negatively affects all parties.
Avoid creating a panic. Hanging out too long at the end of the cliff without coming to a deal may create anxiety and panic, which can have the same result as going over the cliff. That is, you may unwittingly create a stampede that takes all parties over the edge.
Don’t use brinkmanship on small issues. If something can be solved fairly easily and creates a win-win, don’t create a false crisis. That's not the way to the best outcome.
Don’t be taken by the short-term drama. Don't let yourself get drunk on your own rhetoric. The confrontation may give you a sense of empowerment, but you must be aware that this drama is short-lived.
Remember, over the cliff you have no allies. Once you’ve gone over the brink, your supporters will only remember who was responsible. They will forget their prior alliances.
Finally, even if you never go over the cliff, there is no coming back from brinksmanship. Things will never be the same. Going to the brink inevitably raises doubt about your leadership capacity. Foes and allies alike will begin to question your leadership capability. If you are a good leader why did you have to go the brink? Sure, the fanatic few who may get an adrenalin rush and admire that you stood the barricades may not question. But most will ultimately ask, “Why did you take it so far?”
After this debt ceiling storm, in quiet reflection, this is the question many will ask. It will be interesting to see which players will pay the price. But someone will. Hopefully, next time few will play “Chicken” on the brink.