Negotiating Tips From 7 of History’s Greatest Business Leaders

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Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or an experienced professional, knowing how to negotiate is a vital skill to have—and this has always been the case. Before going after what you want, look to these business-savvy go-getters of yesteryear for inspiration.


A lot can be learned from the man many consider to be America’s first entrepreneur. Benjamin Franklin was born into a poor family of 17 children, and he had to rely on his own ambition and ingenuity to achieve success. He built his fortune by rising through the printing industry, and eventually became wealthy enough to retire by the age of 42. Like hundreds of successful entrepreneurs who would follow him, Benjamin Franklin also wrote his own “how to” list of tips for getting rich in business (though Franklin’s advice was mainly for himself, not for others). One of his maxims that’s especially applicable to the negotiation side of business is: "Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."


You can’t talk about great American businessmen without mentioning John Pierpont Morgan. One story that highlights Morgan’s relentless persistence is his role in ending the Panic of 1893. To jolt the country out of a serious depression, J.P. Morgan proposed that the government buy gold from a syndicate of international banks. President Grover Cleveland instead chose to tackle the crisis by selling bonds directly to the public, a plan Morgan was sure would fail. He kept searching for an alternative and eventually dug up an old law from the Civil War that would allow the Treasury to buy gold directly from Morgan and international banks without congressional approval. After finagling a meeting with the president and presenting the loophole, Cleveland agreed to get on board and disaster was averted. So if you’re set on not taking no for answer in a business negotiation, be like Morgan and search for creative ways to convince people to say “yes.”


Lincoln isn’t widely remembered as a great entrepreneur, but the former president showed an interest in business throughout his life. He managed a general store for a brief period, ran his own law practice, and became the first and only U.S. president to hold a patent (unfortunately, his idea for a flotation system for lifting boats off of sandbars never made it off the ground). One business savvy negotiation tactic that Lincoln employed during his presidency was the art of persuasion.

Rather than trying to coerce his opponents, Lincoln understood that approaching them with kindness was much more effective: “When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted,” Lincoln said in his Temperance Address of 1842. He continued:

"It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men, if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find by little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one."


It’s important to be respectful and professional during a business negotiation, but don’t let the pressure to be formal get in the way of making a human connection. Take a page from the book of denim tycoon Levi Strauss, who insisted on being addressed by his first name his whole life. Originally born “Loeb” Strauss, Levi adopted his iconic first name while running a dry goods store with his brothers in New York. Even after his blue jeans business took off and he became a powerful businessman, he still insisted his employees call him Levi—no matter where they ranked in the company.


Born into slavery, Bridget “Biddy” Mason was eventually able to rise to the status of prolific philanthropist and entrepreneur by working hard and spending her money wisely. She and her family moved with their slave owner to the newly free state of California in 1850, and in 1856 she successfully petitioned the court to win them their freedom. She went on to work as a nurse and midwife and slowly accrued wealth by living a frugal lifestyle. Her patience paid off, and after 10 years of saving her money she had earned enough to buy land in what’s now downtown Los Angeles. She then went on to become an influential philanthropist, found the city’s oldest African American church, and continue to invest in real estate.


Sometimes the most difficult part of a negotiation is actually getting someone to hear what you’re saying. Figure out a way to spin the most attractive parts of what you’re pitching and people will perk up and want to hear more. P.T. Barnum, the American businessman and circus pioneer, was an expert in attracting attention. "I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, to attract attention to a show," he wrote to a publisher in 1860. "I don't believe in 'duping the public,' but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them."


Born in 1839, Jamsetji Tata’s pioneering spirit and lasting business legacy has earned him the honorary title “Father of Indian Industry.” He dedicated himself to working towards four main goals throughout his life: the establishment of a one-of-a-kind hotel, a world-class education institution, a hydro-electric plant, and an iron and steel company. Tata only lived long enough to see one of those dreams realized with the inauguration of the Taj Mahal Hotel in 1903, but his ambitions didn’t go to waste. After his death, his descendants built upon the groundwork laid by Tata and set up India’s largest private electric company, India’s largest steel company, and two learning institutions. When it comes to setting goals for yourself, whether in business negotiations or elsewhere, Jamsetji Tata proved it’s always best to set your sights high.