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Don't Do Office Politics? Then You Don't Do Leadership.

"Politics" is a nasty word, implying that business leaders who practice it are insincere, glad-handing, and superficial. Get over it.
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Recently a corporate executive told me, “I don’t do politics.”

If you don’t do politics, how are you going to get anything done? It is a simple reality that political competence is an essential part of leadership and entrepreneurial success.

So why do you recoil from the word? The problem, of course, is with the word itself.

Don't be a Princeling

For too many, it brings back memories of Machiavelli’s The Prince and his creepy adage: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” You cringe at the idea of being seen as the smiling politician, shaking his constituents' hands even as he prospers at their expense.  

The error here lies in failing to realize that politics is a leadership skill, not a moral position. Leaders who are politically competent understand that they need the support of others to succeed. They appreciate when and when not to act. They anticipate who will support or resist their agenda, and they determine whose support is needed to move an agenda forward. Political competence is knowing how to map the human terrain at your business, how to get others on your side, and how to lead coalitions.  You don't need to spend all day slapping backs, or kissing babies, or flattering people you hate. But you do need to be politically competent.

To become politically competent, you need to work on these three key skills:

Anticipation

To get things done, you have to see the world through the eyes of others. You have to fixate not on the beauty and righteousness of your ideas, but rather on how others will react to what you are trying to accomplish. Too many leaders spend too little time anticipating. They over-focus on what they’re trying to do and underemphasize the roadblocks others may put in their way. Before you say or do anything you have to understand the agendas of those around you. Anticipating the arguments they'll make is the first of the skills you need.

Negotiation

Winning others to your position is essentially an act of negotiation. The most successful leaders know with whom to negotiate, when to negotiate, what to promise and what not to promise. You have to articulate your message to get the buy-in and hone it in such a way that others will see the benefits of supporting you. That way you negotiate from a position of credibility and don't appear as if you're trying to push your agenda over the interests of everyone else.

 Coalition Building

You need to foster and maintain a sense of a continuous common purpose. That's just essential to moving your ideas ahead. But remember: while you may now have the support of others, that support may be fragile. As you move the agenda forward, the collective purpose may weaken. To prevent that, you need to develop the ability to deal with internal conflict and to control counter-coalitions.

 Without mastering these three skills, you will--not to put too fine a point on it--fail as a leader. You can have the best of intentions, the most brilliant of ideas, and the most exquisite processes of execution, but you’ll never be able to get others to buy in.

 If you want to get the things done that need to be done at your company, you have to throw out the negative undertones of the word “politician.” Think of another, less pejorative word: Like Diplomat. Fixer. Mensch. Or--oh, yeah--leader. 

Samuel Bacharach: 'If You Don't Do Politics, You Shouldn't Be a CEO'

To build a business, great ideas and charisma only go so far, says Samuel Bacharach, Cornell professor of labor management. You must be adept at politics.

IMAGE: Alex E. Proimos/Flickr
Last updated: Jul 5, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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