Are You Afraid to Be Politically Competent?


Getting things done is a function of your political competence. An no, political isn’t a bad word. Read Prof. Bacharach full article on



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Three Blind Mice

This post is the first in a series that dissects classic nursery rhymes in search of helpful leadership lessons for the proactive, politically savvy manager. Enjoy.

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Three blind mice. Three blind mice.

See how they run. See how they run.

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?

Organizations are laboratories of two conflicting, oscillating elements: competition and uncertainty. This is not to say that a leader perpetually operates in a competitive paradigm or that every detail ranging from an annual budget to a lunch special is uncertain, but nevertheless competition and uncertainty are omnipresent in organizations. When we then add the economic reality of scarcity into the equation, leaders are effectively transformed into blind mice.

Like the eponymous mice in this nursery rhyme, leaders rapidly mobilize agendas while understanding that their agenda is likely at odds with someone else’s campaign.

If a startup is attempting to corner the online cheese industry, it understands that other startups are pursuing the same consumer wheel and slices are limited. There are a finite number of farmers’ wives, seeking only so many discounts on aged Gouda spreads, and only the first mouse will reap the rewards.  Leaders at each startup then run alongside each other as they attempt to innovate and outperform their competitors on the road to execution.

Compounding their challenge is the reality that each manager is blind as she mobilizes her agenda. In an uncertain world, no one knows exactly where the expressway ends. Even if one knows her destination and scurries ahead of her competitors, there is no guarantee that a plate of cheese awaits the victor.

One startup could successfully monetize their cheese service only to discover that the dairy craze has ended and the market has shifted to a new sector. Or the farmer’s wife consumers may have changed their preferences and no longer want your gorgonzola. Here, executing the agenda can unfortunately mean executing yourself as you discover all your time and invested resources only lead you to the chopping block.

So the next time someone asks if you’ve ever seen such a sight in your life as three blind mice, open your eyes and find a mirror. You work in a challenging environment and it helps to pause occasionally and confirm that you’re not trapped in a fruitless (or cheeseless) rat race.

Pic credit: snacktime2007

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Hockey, Square Dancing & Strauss-Kahn

The other day I foraged up another suppressed memory from the vaults that house my traumatizing middle school experiences. The experience affords me an unlikely empathy with Dominique Strauss-Kahn this week but more on that later.

Unlike my other buried gems such as the Tator Tot Incident or the Ketchup Burp, this adolescent episode occurred outside of the dreaded cafeteria social swamp. In seventh grade physical education—the only education where my graphing calculator was rendered useless—my teacher made the fatal mistake of handing me a floor hockey stick.

While I carefully choreographed most gym periods to spend the 40 minutes completing MadLibs in the bathroom, on this unfortunate day I was fully dressed for the gym part. Outfitted in pink-eye stained goggles and clutching a stick twice my size, I rumbled onto the floor where social reputations were born and reared. While I’d like to report that this chapter ended with me simply scurrying around the room like a startled chinchilla, fortune had it that stormy suburban afternoon that I would end up with the puck.

After ricocheting off the ample dome of a fellow gym outcast, the puck came to rest in front of me. Like an arachnophobe meeting Spiderman I spun around, scrunched my perspiring brow, and struck the puck, sending it careening across the unforgiving floor.

In pink eye hindsight, two elements of that shot were extraordinary. First, despite my feral assault, the puck went airborne rather than sinking into a dented floor. Second, the puck, as if synced into a finely calibrated GPS unit, cleanly bypassed a befuddled goalie and infiltrated his netted ward. In a haze of blinding euphoria, I reacted by triumphantly putting my square dancing skills to work.

I think I completed two solo do-si-dos before I absorbed the news. In place of a celebratory Gatorade shower, my peeved peers rained down their disapproval on me for accidentally shooting on my own goal. I scored for the opponents. If MadLibs asked for an adjective to describe my reputation, pathetic or mutilated would probably suffice. It took a lot of chocolate milk and shrimp poppers to smother my shame and repair the damage done that day.

So where does this story intersect with former Director of the IMF and accused sexual predator Dominique Strauss Kahn? Yesterday prosecutors surrendered their case against the disgraced politician. Legally, he is innocent of fault in the case even if he did likely shoot his puck into the wrong goal so to speak. Yet despite his official vindication, his personal and professional reputations are beyond tainted. If you could liquefy his reputation, it would be less quenching than the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. And tater tots offer little respite to an aspiring president of France.

Proactive leaders must cautiously approach their reputation as they would a porcelain cricket in a Tiffany’s. Appreciate its value and fiercely protect it from clumsy intrusions. Yet understand that your organization is bound by the law of uncertainty and even the most politically savvy leader can’t prevent the ground from shaking occasionally. You need to prepare for the inevitable earthquake by cultivating strong coalitions and robust support networks. These supporters will be your insurance policy when the first tremors arrive.

Finally, avoid the ego trap like you avoided your middle school cafeteria’s vintage pizza nuggets. Swaggering around your office with an air of invincibility will neither advance your agenda nor secure you water wings when your reputation sinks. Soliciting coalitional support is not the same as aggressive seduction and Strauss-Kahn abandoned modesty when he inherited the nickname “The Great Seducer”. He fell into the ego trap and continued to fall until he landed in the U.S. criminal justice system. It was a textbook error akin to driving a Zamboni through the Tiffany’s storeroom.

So, to simplify, politically savvy leaders shoot straight while preserving their reputation and know not to do-si-do when their puck flies astray.

Photo Credit: mannpollon

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Charisma Can Die

Once in a while an event occurs that triggers a plethora of articles and an overwhelming amount of thoughts about a topic.  It should come as no surprise that the surgical elimination of Osama bin Laden has suddenly stimulated a rush of articles and op-eds about leadership. Indeed the entire event, when looked upon outside of it’s overblown dramaturgical frame, raises some wonderful points about different types of leadership.

The first issue is whether or not organizations can survive the demise of a charismatic leader. In this particular instance I have non-theoretical bias and hope that the answer is NO! I think we will all be much happier if in this instance if the empirical test fails. But beyond that what can we speculate?

Max Weber spoke about the transformation of charisma: The challenge of transferring charisma from one leader to another. For this transfer to occur there needs to be a development of ritual mythologies and legends that legitimize the continuation of the mission laid out by a charismatic leader. Obviously it’s too early to know if this core of cultural activity will emerge, but if it does it may be so diffused as to be ineffective. For charisma to succeed, to really be transferred, there needs to be a continued organizational structure that can take the mythology and transfer it into concrete organizational mission tactics.

In this particular instance the mythology may continue but it’s unlikely that a loose structure will ever be able build an organization without the continuous presence of a charismatic leader pushing the agenda. This of course means that the free world needs to assert continuous pressure to make sure that the organization’s structure and stability are never allowed to emerge. The way you make sure that the mythological head on the snake does not reattach itself to the body, is by making sure the body remains dismembered.

While the transference of charisma is one of the issues raised by this event, the other is one of our favorite themes: pragmatic leadership. In this instance President Obama’s capacity to keep his focus on the mission, to sustain the goals, to keep his team together, to maintain momentum and not drop the ball is one of the best examples in recent years of the capacity to get people on your side and keep them there. This balance of political competence and managerial competence is clearly what is necessary for execution. In many ways it is the exact opposite of the charismatic approach. It is grounded in the tradition of keeping your mouth shut and keeping your eyes on the ball. In that regard we draw a very simple but important lesson from this: execution is everything, execution demands a leader that can make sure his team can go the distance.

So what have we learned from this event? What are the leadership lessons?

  1. Don’t be overwhelmed by charisma
  2. If you want to get something done keep your mouth shut and focus on execution

photo: Orin Zebest

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Diagnosing Internal Malaise

The recent airing of General McChrystal’s grievances of the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan through a public outlet has raised a series of important dilemmas for individuals hoping to enact reform within their organizations. How should I go about drawing attention to problems within my business?

One on hand keeping the matter “in the family” can spare higher ups having to deal with potentially embarrassing inquires and audits which will also undoubtedly keep you in your bosses’ good graces.  However, without any external pressure there exists the likelihood that your ideas will falter, as a powerful motivation of change has dissipated. Conversely, you can choose to go public with your misgivings, increasing the probability that change will occur, albeit with the added price of media scrutiny and a sure trip to the unemployment insurance rolls. Usually, I think many would agree that informing principals of your qualms and deploying political competence to see these change through is the optimal solution. However, if the situation merits urgent attention your best option may be to blow things up and take the requisite lumps that will come. One such situation emerged in the years preceding the full outbreak of World War II.   

Throughout history, art has undeniably been linked to propagandistic motives. Picasso’s Geurnica was painted after the tragic bombing of Guernica by Nazi bombers in the hope of drawing international attention to the tragedies of the Spanish countryside. Painted in 1937, Pablo Picasso masterfully conveys the suffering of the Basque people and the tragedy of war. In choosing such a public forum, one of Spain’s artistic lights was able to draw international attention the suffering of his people.

Picasso used light and dark shadows and images to amplify the atrocity of these heinous acts. In order to maximize international attention, he highlights victims by using representations of light and dark along with a linear composition to emphasize the inhumanity and terror caused by the Franco regime. 

Unfortunately, in some cases perverse incentives (typically delayed promotion, being labeled as a snitch, or even fear of termination) keep employees unwilling to collaborate with employers. Non-hierarchical workplaces can temper some of these anxieties and help keep tensions at a minimum. Occasionally, problems need to be addressed in larger forums, which should be used to gauge general concerns and begin to build a consensus towards finding acceptable solutions. Picasso’s painting served this purpose, a large-scale mural, which directed the conversation.

Every organization faces two competing demands: it must execute its current activities and adapt those same activities to face future opportunities and challenges. Organizations hoping to maintain a competitive edge must be able to accurately diagnosis internal malaise.