A colleague of mine was recently appointed president of a major university. Over dinner, he told me that he doesn't do politics. He says he prefers to be objective and realistic. Get real! If you don't "do" politics you can't lead an organization!
Organizational life is messy and complicated, and everyone faces a different set of challenges and headaches. The key to forging ahead and getting things done in this environment is political competence.
What is political competence?
When people think "political" they think about the candidate running for office, running around, giving speeches, and shaking hands. Political competence in the organizational sense is understanding what you can and cannot control, assessing the timing of taking action, identifying allies (and resistors), and determining exactly who you need on your side for you to push your change agenda forward. Political competence is about mapping the political terrain, gaining support, and leading a coalition. Political competence is critical to successful leadership.
There is no shortage of good ideas. There are always suggestions of how to do the work better, faster, and more efficient than before. The rub is to get others to get on board with the new idea. Political competence is a lever that leaders can use to get their idea off the ground. Political competence allows leaders not only to get support, but also to seriously engage the key players that they will need to implement their idea.
If you are a corporate executive deciding which division to cut, you need political competence. If you are a principal of an elementary school who would like to implement a new curriculum for third graders, you need political competence. Professors striving for tenure, HR managers pushing for change in recruiting, marketing directors going after a new niche all need political competence to survive.
Even with the best intentions, the greatest ideas, the most exquisite processes of execution, without political competence, you are unlikely to have success. Political competence isn't a textbook process, but it is an ongoing exercise of seeing and analyzing the world around you, and building a coalition of support that will see your agenda implemented.
Leadership is not something that one person can do alone. An organizational lone ranger is the person who single-mindedly pursues their idea. They might assign tasks to others here and there, but they take sole responsibility for their change effort. Because they don't take the time to engage others, there isn't a collective sense of ownership or pride in the end result. Lone rangers tend to trample on others in their gallop toward the finish line, and unwittingly create divisions and dissent that didn't exist before.
At the other extreme are the consensus builders. They are focused of getting everyone into the tent before taking action. They thrive on constant meetings and endless hallway chats. While the lone ranger may end up with a tangible result, the consensus builder has people on their side, but they often don't get things done.
Political competence is the balance between the single-minded pursuit of the lone ranger and the warm reach of the consensus builder. Politically competent leaders have a goal in mind, and the political sense to engage others to join them in their effort to ultimately get things done.