Roger Fisher: 1922-2012

Virtually all of my blog readers, and for that matter, much of the world, will not know that on August 25 Roger Fisher passed away.

Roger Fisher was a Harvard academic and adviser to presidents and leaders, and perhaps most importantly – because his writings touched so many people – a co-author of Getting To Yes (along with numerous other books) which outlined and made accessible interest based negotiation theory to the world.

Sadly, his wikipedia page is shockingly short on the scope and range of his work and achievements. There is little about his important role advising President Carter and the other principals during the negotiations of the Camp David Accords and only passing reference to his role in resolving a long-standing border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. This is to say nothing of the millions of people in the corporate, non-profit and political spheres who have been influenced by his writings and thinking. In an odd way however, the entry is perhaps fitting for a man that was – in my limited experience – exceedingly humble.

Happily a more robust description of Fisher’s accomplishments see this wonderful summary over at the Harvard Law School’s website, here’s a tiny taste:

According to Patton, Fisher’s efforts contributed directly and materially to multiple steps toward peace in the Middle East, including Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, and the Camp David summit that led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; peace in Central America and especially in El Salvador; the resolution of the longest-running war in the western hemisphere between Ecuador and Peru; the breakthrough that enabled resolution of the Iranian hostage conflict in 1980; a fundamental reshaping of the U.S.-Soviet relationship; and the negotiations and constitutional process that led to the end of apartheid in South Africa. (Read the full text of Patton’s tribute here.) Fisher is also recognized as the intellectual father of the “West Point Negotiation Project,” which has trained Army officers and cadets to recognize conflicts and apply the tools of principled negotiation in both peace and war.

For myself, it would not be overstating issues to say that Roger Fisher (along with Ury and Patton) changed my life. Indeed, the ideas found in Getting to Yes have been central to almost everything I’ve done for almost 15 years. Be it my work in open government, public policy, open source and open innovation, community management, or flat out negotiation consulting on things like the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the ideas that make up interest based negotiation have strongly informed my thinking and made me more effective than I otherwise would ever have been. Frankly, they have made me a better person.

It is, and remains, one of my life’s great privileges that I briefly got to work with Roger. And while he remains someone who helped change the way people work, negotiate and collaborate together, the thing that I always remember about him was the incredible generosity with which he engaged everyone – including a 24 year kid fresh out of graduate school, long on dreams, and short on experience.

In late 2000 I got my first job with a Cambridge based Vantage Partners, a negotiation consulting company spun out of the Harvard Negotiation Project that Roger had helped found in 1983. Word came down from the partners that Roger (who did not work at Vantage) wanted an associate to help him plan and role out an upcoming workshop for a group of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Through enormous good luck (I won a draw) I was the one chosen to help him. I remember being so overwhelmed by the opportunity (could a more striking fanboy moment be imagined?). And so it was that evening when, without warning, Roger called my apartment in Cambridge to talk about the work. Getting a call from Roger Fisher was a little like having my teenage self getting a call from Bono.

But while as high as that conversation made me feel, what really struck me was how much he wanted my opinions and my thoughts about what should happen over the few days that the Israeli’s and Palestinians would be in town. I was dumbstruck that he even wanted to know what I thought, but having him honestly engage my ideas reset all my notions about how those with power can engage those who feel like they have less. Even writing this, I’m struck with how insufficiently I’ve modeled Roger’s capacity to honestly, thoughtfully and respectfully engage almost anyone who feels intimated or having less authority than you.

But the one story that I feel really sums up his character comes from his 80th birthday party at Harvard in 2002. After the dinner and speeches people were mingling and starting to drift home. But Roger and I ended up deep in conversation, discussing possible paths to peace for Israel, the Palestinians and the middle east in general. In fact we become so engrossed we did not notice that virtually everyone had left and it was really just us, and his wife, standing by the door with their jackets, looking slightly displeased.

In that moment, the pieces of Roger Fisher that I knew (again, briefly) were all in play.

Here was a man who I recall feeling personally responsible for helping secure peace in the middle east 20 years earlier. He carried an indescribable personal burden for what he felt was a missed earlier opportunity to help the region as well as a responsibility to make it right.

Here also was man that enjoyed engaging with young people and getting new opinions. Much like the story above I was struck by ho much he wanted to know what I thought. He wanted opinion, and wanted to know how I saw the facts on the ground. It was startling, rewarding, humbling, and frankly, scary, to be taken so seriously.

But finally, and maybe most importantly he was a man so dedicated to his mission of tackling great problems and fulfilling his sense of duty that he even wanted to do it on his 80th birthday. While some may see that as tragic, for me it spoke volumes about the sense of responsibility and duty with which he lived his life.

While a shocking percentage of the world has read, or learned the ideas embedded within, Getting To Yes, few of those people will have known who Roger Fisher was or how he has influenced them. For him, my sense is that was just okay. He was never interested in fame, but rather in solving the worlds most dangerous and intractable problems. While the problems I tackle are more smaller and more humble than the ones he dealt with, I hope I can bring the same dedication, insight and skill that he brought to the table.

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gregg gullickson

Thank you for sharing this warm remembrance of Roger Fisher. His was a full life, and we are fortunate to have his wise writings to re-read.