Leadership & Management

Rahm Emanuel: Be Idealistic and Ruthless

The Chicago mayor talks negotiation tips and the downside of “moral victories.”

February 28, 2017

| by Bill Snyder


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sketched his vision for the Democratic Party and offered advice to future business executives during a Stanford GSB View from the Top conversation.| Kiefer Hickman

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t known for keeping his cool. But when it comes to the future of the Democratic Party, keeping it cool is the order of the day, he says.

A return to power “ain’t gonna happen in 2018,” Emanuel told a group of Stanford Graduate School of Business students. “Take a chill pill, man. You gotta be in this for the long haul.”

The famously acerbic politician dished up a serving of tough love during his View From the Top talk, telling Democrats to drop their self-righteous attitudes and focus on winning. “Winning’s everything,” he says. “If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy. I say that because it is hard for people in our party to accept that principle. Sometimes you’ve just got to win, OK?”

And when it comes to “moral victories,” the one-time White House chief of staff will have none of it. “Our party likes to be right, even if they lose. I don’t go to moral victory speeches. I can’t stand them,” he says. “If you lose, you can write the book about what happened — great, that’s really exciting,” he added.

During the one-hour discussion sketched his vision for the Democratic Party and offered advice to future business executives on how to conduct negotiations and the need to be ruthless.

Asked what his party can do to regain control, Emanuel first noted that “Democrats are at the lowest level since 1928 in the House of Representatives and the lowest level since 1925 in the state houses. Not really good, OK?”

Democrats, he says, need to “go out and recruit a farm team.” In 2006 and 2008 when Democrats took control of Congress, Emanuel got flack for recruiting Iraq and war vets, football players, sheriffs, and business people, he says.

His reply at the time foreshadowed a debate the party is having today as it struggles to come to terms with the loss of formerly loyal working class voters: “Well, they’re running in Republican districts. If you’re running in a Republican district, you have to get somebody who can win in a Republican district. I wanted to take cultural issues off the table and present economic issues.”

Emanuel is often the target of criticism from the left, which he generally shrugs off. But one particular criticism came from an unexpected place – and it stung.

After he helped President Clinton push welfare reform through Congress, his liberal rabbi was outraged and denounced Emanuel from the pulpit during a High Holy Days service. The rabbi, along with some progressives, said the reforms were draconian and designed to punish poor people. Emanuel called that episode a low point of his first White House stint.

More recently, Chicago progressives, with the strong backing of the teachers union, forced Emanuel into a runoff as he asked the voters for a second term. He won, but the unexpectedly tough race prompted him to try to soften his image.

If you don’t win, you can’t make public policy. I say that because it is hard for people in our party to accept that principle.
Rahm Emanuel

Even so, Emanuel says he has no regrets and defends his role in the city’s controversial teachers strike, an event that fueled a good deal of anger. Chicago schools have made progress on his watch, he claims, with graduation rates improving from 57 percent to 87 percent. There’s a lesson in that, he says.

“There are certain things that you have [to do], then take the political hit if you think the long-term gain for other people is worth that. You have to be idealistic enough to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and then ruthless enough to get it done,” he says.

Much of Emanuel’s time in Washington, D.C., and now in Chicago’s City Hall has been devoted to cutting deals. Despite his hard-edged persona, Emanuel recommends looking for ways to entice rather than bludgeon. Before he enters into a negotiating session, he sits down and makes a list of his goals and the opposition’s goals. “Can you give them theirs, and can they give you yours?” he says.

“If you try to make the other side lose, it’s not usually a good way to get a deal done. And they won’t sign onto it. And if they do sign onto it, it’s because you crushed them and, trust me, they’re going to come back and get you,” Emanuel says.

Emanuel has spent most of his career in politics, but after he left the Clinton White House, he worked at the investment bank Wasserstein Perella & Co. and served on the board of directors of Freddie Mac. Playing a leadership role in government is obviously different than leading in the private sector, but executives in both fields need to project the right image, he says.

“You always have to communicate strength, confidence, and optimism. Nobody goes for the weaker, not sure, insecure,” Emanuel says.

Asked why a budding entrepreneur would choose Chicago, Emanuel answered with a quip that would resonate for any home hunter in the San Francisco Bay Area: “You can actually get an apartment with a view and still afford a meal,” he says.

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