"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?"