With President Obama still locked in a battle with Republican Representatives over the Federal Budget its interesting to hear about how an earlier President managed his relationship with Congress in a much more collaborative way.

On the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning A Scott Berg was talking about his newly published biography of Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson is probably most remembered for taking America in to WW1 and for his failed attempt to set up a League of Nations in the aftermath of that war. But Berg argues that he should be better known for getting ‘a more progressive domestic programme of legislation through Congress than any Democrat President has ever managed’. This included laws restricting child labour, protecting workers rights, bringing the banking system under government supervision, providing for direct elections for Senators and finally the passing of the nineteenth amendment extending the right to vote to women. A pretty impressive and far reaching set of changes.

And he did all this by adopting a collaborative approach to the business of government and having an ‘on-going conversation with congressmen of all parties’. A key instrument in his plan was his use of the President’s Room – which is a large chamber inside the congress building on Capitol Hill reserved for use by the President. It was conceived of by George Washington but only used occasionally by other presidents – however Wilson went there several times a week to discuss issues with members of congress rather than requiring them to meet him in the White House as he had the power to do.

The symbolic effect of “going to your opponents’ house” is an important one, and one I often advocate to clients who are mired in difficult negotiations with their business partners today. By offering to visit the other side’s premises you get an insight into their culture, the things they value, and possibly the source of some of the pressures they are under. But also you show you are willing to make the effort to travel to their territory and to hear them speak in their own environment. Of course you may also get the practical benefit of bumping in to people other than those you are scheduled to meet but who might be very useful to the progress of negotiations. Apparently Wilson would regularly arrange to be going in to the President’s room just as a session of congress was ending so he could hear the immediate reactions to the latest debate in person and grab a quick word with Representatives that he wanted to influence.

I’ve written before about Abraham Lincoln’s finally developed collaborative leadership skills as described in the book ‘A team of Rivals’ – but it looks like Woodrow Wilson’s understanding of how the Executive and Legislative arms of government can co-operate in running the country will be another interesting read and will give business leaders as well as current political leaders on both sides of the pond something to think about.

Alex Cameron