"Lincoln," and the Politics of Organizations

The movie "Lincoln" is a two-and-a-half-hour master course in politics. Focusing on Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th amendment to end slavery and featuring a spellbinding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and a brilliant script by Tony Kushner, the movie should be mandatory viewing for leaders of all types. It makes crystal clear why "politics" and leadership are intricately and inseparably linked.

It's common for my coaching clients to sneer at the mere mention of the words "office politics." Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that simply working hard and doing what is right is not all that matters in our work life, that we sometimes have to "play the game" in order to see our goals come to fruition.

I have seen two major reasons for the disdain of organizational politics: 

First, we have all seen people who seem to use political skills untethered by ethics. That is, they use deception, cronyism, backstabbing, and intimidation to get their personal goals. They advance their agenda independent of the good of others, and they seem to lack substance. No one wants to be that person so we express disdain for office politics and avoid them. 

Second, organizational politics can be difficult and require skills that we don't learn in a classroom. Those who disdain organizational politics usually don't want to face this fact--that they don't have good political skills and it would take work to develop them--preferring to simply demonize the activity rather than try to learn how to do it effectively. 

The first objection is a straw-man argument, however--focusing on gross generalizations that are often not true of effective office politicians. Yes, some people are Machivellian, self-serving, substance-free incompetents who get ahead because of their ability to schmooze; but the number of these people is smaller than we might suspect. Some people are effective politicians and do so to further an agenda of substance and benefit for the group. "Lincoln" dismisses this objection when Lincoln says to Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a staunch anti-slavery advocate, "What good does it have true north if you get lost in the swamps on your way there?" 

The second objection is usually the true obstacle, even if we are not conscious of how it shapes our resistance. Simply put, organizational politicking is hard work (another point that "Lincoln" demonstrates). 

One definition of "politics" from Merriam-Webster Online is the total complex of relations between people living in society. Think about that for a moment--"the total complex of relations...." People are complicated and often contradictory. They often don't know what they really want, and when they do they don't always know the best way to get it so they often flounder around relying on emotion and gut intuitions rather than clear logic and rationality. Interacting with one person is challenging enough; when you start adding multiple stakeholders with multiple agendas, the complex of relations can become daunting. The more important the goal, the more treacherous and challenging the waters become. It is tempting to throw up our hands and reject the politics of getting things done as an ignoble undertaking.

But rejecting the politics of getting things done means that we never reach true north; we get lost in the swamps. Thus, those who want to really get things done, who want to accomplish big things, who want to see their good ideas come to fruition, must "go back to school" and learn those abilities that you didn't learn earlier.* Those abilities include developing general qualities such as emotional intelligence, strategic skills such as an understanding of power dynamics and basic psychology, and tactical skills such as the ability to compromise and find a quid pro quo. 

In my next post I will list some ways in which you can become more skilled in organizational politics.

*Chris Argyris's idea of "skilled incompetence" is important here, the idea that the more successful (or perhaps just the older) one becomes the more psychologically difficult it is to place oneself in the beginner's role and learn the basics of a given task or competence.