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Should leaders keep away from playing politics?


BIG BENGood leaders are politicians in the most positive sense of the word, says Keith Patching. They recognise that leadership is not about being right, it's about being sufficiently influential to take people along with them - and ignore politics at their peril.

"If it were not for the politics, we'd get along fine."

Is organisational politics getting in the way? Do you sometimes wish that people would stop playing politics and just get on with the job? If your answer is "Yes," and you want to become a successful leader, you may need to think again.

Who plays politics?
Well-meaning but misguided people often advise aspiring leaders not to 'get involved in the politics' of organisations. They imply that there are different kinds of people: the bad guys who 'play politics', and the good guys who don’t. 'Playing politics' may imply a number of things such as:

  • Power games

  • Empire building

  • Back stabbing

  • Seeking personal gain above corporate gain

  • Manipulating others

Photo of KEITH PATCHING"It's not what you do that's important, but why people think you do it...Good intentions can be interpreted as bad."

Whenever someone wins an argument, he or she has used influence of some kind to do so. This is politics. It is not inherently bad. But if you are the one who lost the argument, it feels bad from your point of view, and it helps soothe the wounds to describe the other person’s success as 'playing politics'.

When, on the other hand, you win the day, it does not feel that you have 'played politics', simply that good sense has prevailed and that you have done the right thing for the organisation.

When you win, those you have defeated are likely to see you as the political game-player.

Why leaders need to be political
You can successfully manage people who do not have respect for you. In general, people will do what you tell them to, because you have authority over them. Managers can be awful at their jobs without realising it, because the authority they have over people means that things tend to get done.

Poor leaders, however, rarely get very far. Leaders need people's respect and loyalty. People will only follow you if you show good leadership, and this means understanding why people are prepared to do so.

Leaders, whether they want to be or not, are part of the political landscape in every organisation, because leadership means influencing people.

Many people who want to be leaders, but fail to achieve this goal, do so because they are politically naïve: convinced that they are right about the way forward. Other people can't or won’t see the right way forward, and they make politically motivated but wrong choices.

Aspiring leaders who are politically naïve stick to the principle of only supporting causes they understand, and back away from the messier areas of the political arena.
What these leaders fail to see is that it's not what you do that’s important, but why people think you do it.

"People spend so much time questioning others' motives because actions by themselves make no sense. It's only when we believe that Robin Hood was well-intentioned that we can see him as a hero rather than a criminal."

Good intentions can be interpreted as bad. You're committed to a course of action that you are convinced will be of benefit to your organisation. To get there you need resources, and campaign to acquire them. Is this empire building?

You know in your heart that bureaucracy is smothering your organisation's potential, and fight hard to support those who buck the system. Is this unprofessional?

Of course you're not empire building – you may shudder at the thought of having an empire! Of course you're not unprofessional – you take pride in the quality of what you do.

If you give the impression that you say things for the sake of gaining power, and not because you believe what you say, then you will lose them. You must make your intentions clear.

It's not what you do; it's why you are doing it
People spend so much time questioning others' motives because actions by themselves make no sense. It's only when we believe that Robin Hood was well-intentioned that we can see him as a hero rather than a criminal.

And we prefer not to remember Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, Martin Luther King as a revolutionary, or Mahatma Gandhi as an insurgent. All labels applied to them at some point in history.

We look up to successful leaders not only because of what they do, but because we recognise and believe in the vision, the purpose and the motives for their actions. As a leader in your organisation, are you able to get people to believe in your vision, purpose and motives? Are you clear in your own mind about why you do what you do?

Leadership, character and strategy
Leadership strategies are created through a combination of processes: rational thought, belief and values. The choices we make as leaders are influenced greatly by who we are – our characters. Most people do not take time out to examine:

  • Their core values

  • How those values influence their motives

  • How those motives are perceived by others

  • The political impact of what they do

They just get on with their jobs, but leaders cannot afford to be so careless.

Leaders who want to take the realities of organisational politics seriously must delve deeper into these areas to understand their potential benefits. By not arguing with people who disagree with you, but by influencing them, you can develop your strategy for successful leadership.

Convincing someone is not about making them see things through your eyes, but understanding and communicating effectively those aspects of a way forward that will align with their beliefs. And to do that, you need to know where that other person is coming from, what they believe in, and how those beliefs affect how they are likely to interpret what you are saying to them. You must understand the politics.

"By not arguing with people who disagree with you, but by influencing them, you can develop your strategy for successful leadership."

There's no magic to political success
Effective leadership within the inherently political world of organisations is not intellectually difficult. It's all about really knowing yourself and how people see you.
You may see yourself as a hard-driving, ambitious, and inspirational leader. But if those around you see these characteristics as self-serving, aggressive and bombastic, they won't want to follow you.

You may see yourself as caring, consultative and thoughtful. But if others see these as smothering, indecisive and hesitant, they will turn elsewhere for leadership.

By comparing your own perspective on the world with those of the people around you, as a leader, you can pinpoint those areas of influence you need to improve.

If you don't take time out to look closely at these factors, you'll be in the politics, but unable to control it.

There are no right answers
Good leaders are politicians in the most positive sense of the word: they recognise that the art of leadership is not about being right, it is about being sufficiently influential to take people along with them.

Within the essentially political world of leadership, there are no right answers. Some answers may be better than others, but even this is a matter of opinion, not fact. Leaders do not try to prove they are right; they try to persuade and influence others to points of view they believe in.

This is leadership. It is also politics. Back away from politics and you abdicate true leadership.

Keith Patching is a founding partner of LCS Academy, where he specialises in leadership development, and is a former director at the Cranfield School of Management


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