To Politicize or Not to Politicize

“Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”

Those were the words of Niccolò Machiavelli in “The Prince” 500 years ago. At the heart of the quote is an eternal dilemma for responsible, task-driven leaders who like fair play: Should I play the game of politics or not? Should I focus on my tasks and refrain from any of the power games or should I dive in and play as dirty as it may be required of me?

We have found through our careers that leaders mostly divide into 3 groups:
Those who are in the leadership game for the power it entails and the prestige that normally goes with it. They will share the new title or the big responsibility before sharing what they have delivered.
Those who are in leadership for people reasons, who like to grow and develop those in their teams and who thrive on the performance of their employees rather than their own. If you ask about their job they will tell about the people who have grown and thrived on their watch.
Those who have a specialist background and are in leadership because they were the best in their field. Often they have taken a leadership role out of fear of whom else could have been appointed leader instead.

The first group seems to have very few problems with politicizing, and in all honesty they often seem to do much better in their careers than their merits would justify. They have an impressive tendency to be at the right spot with the right person at the right time, repeatedly, and get amazing opportunities. Sometimes karma catches up with them but far too often it doesn’t seem to. That may challenge your view of what is fair, but it is what it is.

The two other groups on the other hand seem to shy from being political and assume their merits will speak for themselves. Their boss will know they delivered as promised so whom else should know? They are often tired of the first group of leaders constantly promoting themselves, so they seem to pull in the opposite direction by completely failing to mention all they get done. Far too often this leads to flatter career curves and missed opportunities.

Like it or not, as Machiavelli so accurately pointed out, leadership is also politics, and if you don’t get political to some extent, you might as well go home. Don’t despair, there are ways to be political and still be someone you like to be.

First, know when you are, and when you aren’t political, and at least admitting this to yourself. Are you talking to this person because you like him/her? Or are you here for a purpose? And is this a purpose you can share with the person? i.e. something like “I know we don’t always see eye to eye, but I fear that if we don’t stick together in this case, John’s department will take over everything.”

Second, start logging your actual achievements and sharing them – internally in your team as well as with your boss and your co-leaders. It’s not bragging, it’s just sharing information. It could be done with a hint of humility, promoting the team as well as yourself, but the message is still that you are extremely proud of what has been achieved. Remember that if you promote your employees it will be good for their careers as well.

Third, map your stakeholders and try looking at the world from their perspective. What do they want? What are they afraid of? And where do your interests align? The kissing up and cheap comments and politicizing are so easy to spot anyway.

Never sell out for what you truly believe in. Never be someone at work that is not you. Always keep your authenticity in everything you do. But if you don’t play the political game at times you will not succeed and you will not do what is best for the organization and the people in your team. Leadership is taking responsibility for performance. And the performance suffers if you miss out on opportunities simply because no one knows what you are capable of.