Career Advice

The Best Negotiators in History (and What Executives Can Learn From Them)

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Human civilization is founded upon negotiation. Negotiations of all sizes keep societies productive and powerful. They keep families together, corporations profitable, and nations organized and successful on the world’s stage.

Yet, as important as the skill of negotiation is for almost everyone in every position, excellent negotiators are remarkably rare. Executives looking to acquire and hone their negotiation skills can take inspiration from some of the world’s best negotiators, who contributed to human history.

Nelson Mandela

Many view Nelson Mandela as one of the best negotiators in history, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Initially a revolutionary and convict in apartheid South Africa, Mandela became the face of patience and peaceful tenacity as he fought for the end of apartheid and established a new era of integrated prosperity for the country.

Business leaders should strive to mirror Mandela’s determination and dignity in negotiations. Mandela’s power as a negotiator derived largely from his ability to sense when to make concessions and stand firm. Able to control his emotions and speak to adversaries with quiet resolve, Mandela gained respect and cooperation even from those most opposed to his interests. It is possible to show resistance while working toward mutual benefit, which executives can apply to their negotiations.

Excellent negotiators are remarkably rare. Executives looking to acquire and hone their negotiation skills can take inspiration from some of the world’s best negotiators, who contributed to human history.Click To Tweet

Henry Kissinger

Few members of the Nixon administration are remembered with pure fondness, and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, is no different. Kissinger has long been a controversial figure in American politics; despite his divisive reputation, there is no denying that Kissinger was a crack-shot negotiator more than worthy of imitation.

Kissinger was vital to Nixon’s foreign policy goals, helping the U.S. establish its first diplomatic relationship with China and defusing geopolitical tensions with the Soviet Union. Though Kissinger is often depicted as a dispassionate negotiator, the truth is that he was incredibly adept at reading his counterparts and establishing rapport, which helped further his (and America’s) interests abroad.

Business leaders can study Kissinger’s negotiation strategy, which combines tactical strategery with good, old-fashioned people-pleasing. It is important to study the other side, analyze their position and interests long before one approaches the negotiation table, and treat them with respect and care. In this way, an executive can be all but guaranteed to get what they want.

Theodore Roosevelt

President Teddy Roosevelt is remembered as a bull moose: a hard-charging, tough negotiator willing to fight tooth and nail for his interests — an image he cultivated throughout his career. Indeed, Roosevelt did strive to exhibit strength and stubbornness meant to intimidate his and America’s opponents into submission, but Roosevelt wasn’t against a more diplomatic approach. One of his most famous pieces of advice for negotiation is, after all, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Big Stick Ideology, as Roosevelt’s policy of negotiation has come to be known, involves analysis and decision-making well in advance of an event.

While business leaders can mimic Roosevelt’s bull moose attitude, it is far more beneficial for them to practice his Big Stick Ideology. Negotiators should be decisive, but only after they have taken the time to gather information and appropriately analyze their positions and interests and those of the other side. Confidence matters, but a willingness to collaborate matters just as much.


Some of history’s best negotiators gained a foundation in these skills by enrolling in negotiation programmes at prestigious universities. All negotiators of this caliber practice their entire lives to build the skills to negotiate successfully at such a high level. Though many executives do not aspire to the political positions of Mandela, Kissinger, and Roosevelt, having a similar ability to negotiate as these three men will undoubtedly be beneficial in advancing corporate and career goals.

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