As part of the quest to help tech executives maximize their leadership potential, a recurring theme is the dreaded concept of politics (cue spooky sound effects). Not all that you think is politics is, in fact, so. Further, sometimes, you just have to learn how to play the game. Let’s break it down and help you lose that fear.
For many people with a technical background, any notion of politics provokes utter disgust. We like to think that all our decisions are usually based on merit and rationality. Therefore, anything that might be seen as “political” is immediately frowned upon. However, this often stems from a skewed viewpoint.
To start, you should come to terms with the fact that the concept of “working” the organization to “get your way” is not necessarily politics, but oftentimes is just the definition of leadership. Lobbying for what’s important to you is not bad per se. The only issue is when you do so, knowing full well that what you are promoting is not in the company’s best interest.
Breaking It Down
Consider the Venn diagram here that shows three attributes for each matter: whether it is beneficial to you, whether it is in the company’s best interest, and whether the matter is in general agreement or not. As you can see, the middle, where all these traits intersect, is the clear win-win-win. If only life were always that easy. When you come across these situations, enjoy them, but don’t be mistaken to think that if this isn’t the case, you are necessarily in the wrong.
The popular mistake: Sometimes, the situation might be so where you have the ability to push for a decision that benefits you and that would be widely supported, but that would still be wrong. I used to have a manager that honestly was looking to increase the size of his team purely as a vanity metric. That move was easy for him to arrange because of optics and his popularity. Nevertheless, it wasn’t necessary, and those extra positions would have been better used in a different team. When what you do goes against the company’s benefit, no matter how easy it is to do so, it is a mistake.
The good fight: When what you’re fighting for is the right thing for the company, no matter if it also happens to be in your favor. There is nothing wrong with forming allies and ensuring that your peers are aligned on the issue before the “big discussion,” for example. That’s not being political. It’s just being effective. Don’t feel bad about using your cachet for better.
Further, leadership is about these points where you know you are doing the right thing, even when it is not easy. I don’t have much of a green thumb, and most of the work in our yard is done by my wife. However, one thing is under my purview: when low branches grow from a tree’s trunk, they end up sucking nutrients and energy from the tree’s main growth. They’re called “suckers.” It is important to prune these as early as possible to prevent harm. The same applies here. Fighting the good fight isn’t “playing politics” but ensuring the organization thrives.
Letting go: Lastly, when something is not good for you but is the right thing, you would be doing your team a disservice by pursuing it. Doing otherwise is precisely when one should be worried about politics. Just don’t.