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Political Competence: Political Leadership Skills for Execution

Did you ever have the feeling that you knew exactly what had to be done in your organization (be it at your office, school, union, political party, neighborhood-wherever your job or life interests take you), but you just couldn’t get others to go along with you? Did you ever have the feeling that others-whose ideas maybe aren’t as good as yours-are capable of getting their agendas adopted, while you constantly run into roadblocks whenever you try to get a group of people to agree with you? Why is it that even though you usually have great ideas, others seem to be able to get people to join their bandwagon, while you end up standing on the sidelines watching the parade pass by? Have you tried to follow what the experts say about how to execute, implement, and manage change and come up short? How is it that others can get people on their side and make things happen?

Some would claim that good leadership is dependent on good ideas. The notion that a good idea will carry the day is the touchstone of all action in organizations. It’s a comforting myth: We’d all like to believe that if we come up with a great idea everyone will rally around our insight and wisdom and that reason will prevail. As anyone working in organizations knows, good ideas are usually not enough to carry the day.

People who push ideas that never get off the ground may become organizational casualties. Their idea is crushed by opposition before it has a chance of survival. On the other hand, successful leaders not only push an idea, but understand the opposition, get people on their side, and make things happen. Maybe-just maybe-the difference between casualties and successful leaders is not a question of which one has a better idea, but a question of their political competence.

There is no shortage of good ideas. The problem is how turn good ideas into action. It is easy to be told that you need to change how you deal with your customer; change how you measure your outputs; change how you approach organizational culture; change how you focus on your core technology. But, it is difficult to know how to put these ideas in place-how to make things happen. Many people know what needs to be done, but few are able to leverage the energy and support of others in order to do it. The difference between successful leaders who can push ideas and those who fail to make things happen may be a question of their political competence. Successful leaders not only push an idea, but understand the opposition, get people on their side, and make things happen.

Power may be seen as getting people to do something in spite of their resistance. Some would maintain that if you have the authority, the knowledge, or the resources to make you powerful, you’ll be able to push your agenda through the organization. How often have you seen powerful people fail? The question is not only one of power, but also one of political competence. Power without political competence may achieve some short-term success, but is likely to doom you to long-term failure. On the other hand, political competence may allow for the success of those who are not obviously powerful in the organization.

What differentiates someone who can make things happen in their job, school, neighborhood, church-wherever-and someone who can’t? Both may have equal power, the same idea, the same strategic plan, the same background knowledge, the same interest in teamwork, but the one who makes things happen is the one who is situationally aware-the one who knows, anticipates, and reacts to the interests, agendas, and intentions of others in the organization. Unlike the quarterback with a great arm, but who fails to see the entire field, those who make things happen in organizations have a broader field of vision.

Making things happen depends on your broad political vision. It isn’t simply a matter of getting a good idea, laying out a plan, telling others what to do, and overseeing the implementation. In order to make things happen you have to identify allies and resistors, you have to get the buy-in, you have to build coalitions, and you have to lead politically.

A good idea, a great idea, a mediocre idea, no matter what kind of idea you have, before laying off those six people in Detroit, before rearranging the furniture in the upstairs conference room, before installing a new server, you have to do your political homework. You need political competence.

Political competence is the ability to understand what you can and cannot control, when to take action, who is going to resist your agenda, and who you need on your side to push your agenda forward. Political competence is about knowing how to map the political terrain, get others on your side, and lead coalitions. More often than not, political competence is not understood as a critical core competence that is needed by all leaders in organizations.

When you ask successful leaders how they make things happen, they’ll talk to you about brainstorming, participation, leadership, market analysis, and planning, but they’ll rarely elaborate on the perpetual day-to-day micro-politics they engage in. Politics seems to be a taboo subject in organizational life-the elephant in the leadership living room that no one discusses or admits is there.

Political competence is not an evil by product of organizational life. Being political, in its most attractive light, is being aware of the interests of others, finding areas of common ground, bringing others on board, and leading them in the pursuit of a goal. Politics is part and parcel of making things happen in organizations. You need political competence if you are a corporate executive deciding which division to cut, if you are a principal implementing a new reading program for the third grade, if you are an assistant professor struggling for tenure, if you are a human resources manager pushing for a change in the recruiting policy, if you are a marketing director going after a new niche, if you are a general attempting to change military communications, if you are a young officer questioning the orders given, or if you are a politician trying to get support for your proposed budget. In all of these situations, you need political competence to survive. Without political competence, you can have the best of intentions, the most brilliant of ideas, the most exquisite processes of execution, but you’ll be unlikely to succeed in making things happen in your organization. Political competence is not simply one more process, but it is your capacity to understand and analyze your environment-and take action.

In the organizational world of imperfect decisions, it is political competence that makes things happen. It is your political competence that will translate ideas into action and strategy into results.



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