November 21, 2018

Navigating The Politics of Leadership

Man is by nature a political animal — Aristotle


I once worked at a company that boldly stated that it had no politics. They even openly deplored politicians. All decisions, they would say, were based on data.

Boy where they wrong.

What they should have said is that they deplored bad politicians because any company, any organization, any group over two people, will have politics — it’s in the nature of our being.

The Origins of Politics

The term politics has it’s roots in Greek. It’s etymology comes from Aristotle’s book “affairs of the city” — which is about governing and governments. It’s root polis literally means city in Greek.

In modern times (around the 1430’s) is when the word politics gain a hold in the english language and became synonymous with all things related to governing towns, cities and states.

Our more modern view of politics is more negative than just affairs of the city. In fact, some of us use “being political” as a negative character trait — one usually reserved for the sleaziest of our corporate and government leaders.

That’s a shame.

Politics is and will always be a natural part of leadership and the wise leader will learn to practice good politics or their organizations will suffer greatly.

Perception is 9/10 of Reality

One aspect of a political system is that perception, for most people, is reality. This is both a powerful tool and a dangerous mindset since often times, perception is not reality and can lead the leader astray.

Perceptions about the condition of the group, company or project are set early and often in the minds of supporters and foes.

Supporters want to believe that the leader has the situation under control and that they made the right choice in supporting them — even if reality says otherwise.

Foes want to see the project, institution or government fail so they spin their own form of reality and try to impress that upon others to sway the political agenda over to them.

This battle for the hearts and minds of supporters is the true art of politics.

Leaders Are Natural Political Targets

Anytime you step up and lead, you are a natural political target. The reason for this is simple — you have power and someone wants it.

Power or the perception of power is what all political operators want. This power is how they can get their agenda moved forward or project competed. It’s this political power or capital that leaders need to acquire and spend to build lasting value for their cause and supporters.

A leader who thinks that they are above being political will soon find themselves sidestepped, marginalized or even removed from power.

Weaving Between The Lines

By now, you should be convinced that politics is and will always be part of leadership.

Don’t think that all politics is bad or serves no purpose. You can be a skilled and compassionate political operator and still maintain your ethics and sense of self. To help you on your journey to being a better political operator, consider these techniques:

  • Listen to the “enemy”: Listening is the best way to understand someone — even a rival. Don’t get sucked into “if we talk, we are negotiating.” That’s bull. Talk is talk and negotiations are a lot different. Listen to what the opposition has to say. Learn all you can and never break off communications.

  • Hold your comments to last possible minute: It’s always best to talk last or wait for someone else to reveal their position. That way, you can read the room and respond appropriately.

  • Always focus on what you have in common: Too often, politicos focus on differences between groups. That’s a poor way to build alliances. It’s better to find a common ground. Even with groups that might appear far different from yours, you will almost always find something in common.

  • Never burn a bridge: No matter what you do, never break off a political relationship unless you absolutely have to. Issues change. People change. Heck, governments change. So don’t discount or marginalize an up and comer or an old stalwart to get ahead — it will burn you in the end.

  • Attack the issue, not the person: All leaders and advocates feel they are fighting for what is true and right — that’s a universal truth. Disagree with the issue and not the person. All leaders or advocates need to be treated with respect and dignity and not personally attacked — that also should be a universal truth.

  • Craft the message to the audience: It’s important that you deliver the message that the audience wants to hear. This does not mean you lie about facts or figures — you just talk about what’s important to them. By doing this, you avoid conflicts until you can build rapport. Once rapport is built, then differences can be debated and discussed from a place of mutual respect and understanding.

  • Build alliances: The political landscape is in constant flux and your friend on one issue maybe your foe on another. That’s why it’s important to build broad and deep alliances with diverse sets of groups and people. Again, even if you disagree on the majority of issues, you might find yourselves agreeing on something important to both of you.

  • Don’t marginalize the competition: You should respect competitors since they are acting in the best interest of their supporters — just like you. Good political sportsmanship requires that all who play by the rules should be given full and equal access to voice their issues and concerns.

You Can’t Avoid Politics But Don’t Be Consumed By It

Don’t be fooled that organizations lack politics. Anytime there is a difference of opinion on the direction to take or how to spend money or what project to work on, politics will emerge.

It’s in our human nature to fight and/or horde resources when they are scarce and look out for our own (or tribal) survival.

One trap that all leaders face is being consumed by politics. It’s an easy thing to do since so much of the leaders job is organizing supporters for a common goal and that means having to fight for resources.

If you let politics consume you, then you will no longer be a leader but a politician. For a leader, being labeled a politician is bad because most politicians really don’t get anything done — they just broker favors and peddle power and influence.

Leaders get stuff done and politically savvy leaders get a tremendous amount of stuff done and that’s what you should strive to be — an astute political leader that gets stuff done.