Mention the word “politics” in polite company and the reaction is usually something like “yuck.” Apparently, some people who aspire to high public office have given even the notion of politics a bad name.
“Office politics” and “organizational politics” elicit the same response. Those terms tend to be associated with ruthless ambition, vicious backstabbing, fulsome brownnosing, and Machiavellian conspiracies—not behaviors that nice people generally admire or seek in friends or colleagues.
In reality, every human organization—from governments to large and small businesses to educational or cultural institutions to, well, even marriage—is a political entity. Millennia ago, Aristotle observed that “man is by nature a political animal.” Little, if anything, has changed about the human condition since.
But this isn’t necessarily or inevitably a bad thing—in fact, it’s often a very good thing. Politics is the art and science of bringing people together to accomplish things they cannot accomplish alone. Otto von Bismarck called politics “the art of the possible.”
Politics is how we get along and work together, and political skills are necessary to lead any human organization: any government, business, school, church, or family.
People, whether employees in a business, citizens in a democracy, or members of a club, church, or family, tend not to be passively obedient followers. They almost always have their own ideas and their own agendas. And leading them almost always requires skillful persuasion—not threats, bribes, deceptions, or false promises, but compelling encouragement to subordinate personal or parochial interests to some larger goal.
That’s the difference between good politics and, well, yucky politics. It’s the difference between shameful self-aggrandizement and honorable leadership for worthy purposes.
Dwight Eisenhower somehow persuaded an eclectic collection of extraordinarily egotistical military generals (Patton, Montgomery, Bradley, and others) to accept smaller roles in the larger strategy of invading the European mainland and then to collaborate in the march to Berlin. He concluded that “leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want because he wants to do it.”
Eisenhower was sensitive to the competing needs of respective egos, and he needed all of their best thinking and best efforts for the campaign to succeed. He understood that there were limits to the power he could exercise by simply ordering them to do what needed to be done. And so, he persuaded them with logic, patience, persistence, exquisite timing, and an appeal to each one’s sense of duty.
That’s political leadership at its best. It’s not a bad model for those seeking to lead governments, corporations, institutions, and families. And it’s really not at all yucky.
Eric Gilbertson teaches organizational leadership and constitutional law at Saginaw Valley State University. To comment on this article, contact him at email@example.com.•