Research Summary

Great Negotiator Study Initiative

by James K. Sebenius


What can be legitimately be learned from closely studying great negotiators at work? Since 2000, the Program on Negotiation (PON)—an active inter-university consortium mainly comprised of numerous faculty from across Harvard, MIT, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts--has annually bestowed the “Great Negotiator Award,”  a program that I have chaired in my role at PON.  Over their careers, the awardees have typically negotiated against great odds in different settings to accomplish worthy purposes.  By systematically probing the experiences of this distinguished group of men and women from varied backgrounds (briefly characterized below), I have designed a faculty study initiative (and an exploratory HBS course) to uncover broader lessons and generalizations about effective negotiation and dispute resolution.

This initiative investigates the pedagogical and intellectual challenges associated with what (and how) we can learn from this group.  Specifically, this initiative analyzes the Great Negotiators that have been named so far in the context of a few of their key accomplishments: Senator George Mitchell’s work in Northern Ireland leading to the Good Friday Accords; Bruce Wasserstein’s dealmaking at Lazard and elsewhere; Special Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky’s negotiations with China over intellectual property rights; the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General, to forge a post-conflict government in Afghanistan; Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s negotiations leading to the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian war as well as his multiparty efforts to deal with unpaid U.S. dues to the United Nations; the Honorable Stuart Eizenstat’s negotiations over Holocaust-era assets in various European countries; U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata’s quiet negotiations on behalf of refugees and internally displaced persons in regions from Iraq to the Balkans to Rwanda; as well as the complex negotiations by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to erect massive, controversial installations from the Running Fence in California to the Gates in Central Park, New York, and wrapping Paris’s Pont Neuf and the German Reichstag.