Issue 4.9 | March-April 2014

In this Article: how to manage politics with your idealism and integrity intact.

by Jonathan Wilson

The hot South African summer sun beat down on the green hill where one of the most significant leaders of the era sat brooding in his office. Exasperated, this man of great moral stature and socio-political influence spent several minutes privately expressing his frustration over the “disgraceful” behaviour of a handful of leaders from other organizations with whom he was working — part of a massive national initiative supported by dozens of large stakeholders. These leaders had, throughout the project, repeatedly stalled, quibbled and, even, deceived, all in an attempt to control it for their own purposes.

“So,” I asked, “what are you going to do about it?” He was, after all, a leader with tremendous clout. He had the authority to remove the offending individuals from the project team.

He paused. “Nothing”, he said, “they’re too politically significant.”

If you possess even a bone of idealism, it is very likely that you despise political manoeuvering, and you may have found yourself sitting very uncomfortably in that room; as, in fact, I did. Indeed, it is idealism that underpins any meaningful venture — a vision for what should be, but isn’t. Even so, to successfully lead in any kind of social system, whether the single system of an organization or the multiplicity of systems that make up civil society, you will need to be politically astute and politically strategic. Political savvy is a crucial art for leaders, one in which the line between influence and manipulation is very fine, and rather grey.

Politically Astute

The politically astute leader understands that change is effected within a social system, that social systems are political by their very nature and, therefore, that an effective change process must be built on accurate insight into the political dynamics of the system.

The first step to becoming astute is to identify the distinct stakeholders in a system and map them according to the degree and kind of influence they have in that system and particularly with respect to other stakeholders: Are they feared? Are they trusted? Are they powerful? Are their resources valued? Which are allies? Which are in conflict?

The second step to becoming astute is to identify the needs and motivations of these stakeholders: what does their context and history cause them to fear, value or prioritize? What are their objectives, interests and needs? What will motivate them?

Politically Strategic

To be politically strategic is to turn one’s insight into action: specifically, action that creates relevant shifts within the system, shifts that enable progress towards the cause for which you lead.

To illustrate both the range of factors one has to take into account and how to act on those factors, consider how we ran negotiation processes for political leaders in South Africa:

  • Ego: we hosted the negotiations in exclusive and prestigious venues. This spoke to the politicians’ vaunted view of their own status and importance, and increased their motivation to participate in an otherwise challenging, even threatening, dialogue process.
  • Reputation: we booked out the venues so that the conversation was private and indeed secret. Participants often didn’t want their constituents or the press to know they were talking to the enemy.
  • Safety: we provided police security because participants feared attempts on their lives, whether from one another or an attack on the venue — and forbade them from bringing their own weapons.
  • Relationship: we allowed each to tell his or her personal life story to the group, thus making room for his or her need to be experienced and even valued simply as a fellow human.
  • Vision: we gave each an opportunity to articulate his or her vision, which each most surely possessed and cared about deeply.

The result of such processes was not the comprehensive achievement of our vision for a peaceable and prosperous South Africa. It was, instead, a measurable shift in that direction — enemies willing to de-escalate conflict; preliminary agreements around shared priorities; a shift in mood felt by their constituents; and so on.

Politically Good

To become politically astute is not to lose one’s innocence, but to lose one’s naiveté. On the other hand, there are two key dangers that present themselves to us as we learn to play the very serious game of politics. The longer we play, the more habituated we become to political manoeuvering, and the graver those dangers become.

The first is when your political manoeuvering becomes self-serving, where you value your personal success as of greater importance than the success of the cause and the community for which that cause exists. It is at this point that politicking descends from strategic influence into crass manipulation, and from pragmatism to ruthlessness.

The second is when your political manoeuvering becomes self-preserving, where your concern (or even fear) for your well-being overrides your otherwise genuine commitment to the cause. This kind of politicking becomes craven, impulsive and reactionary.

Self-serving and self-preserving political leadership results in a narrow perspective that yields short-term, reduced gains — often, more likely, a net loss. Among those you influence it will introduce complacency, cynicism and even corruption. There is no correlation between the selfish politician and successful transformation.

The politically savvy leader who remains both innocent and influential does so because he or she leads from instincts directed wholly in the direction of others, and the betterment of their lives — be they customers, colleagues or, even, and hardest of all, opponents.

In time, the cumulative results of politically savvy leadership can indeed be significant. Thus it was that, when South Africa gained full democracy in April 1994, politicians would thank my former boss, Michael Cassidy, for running processes like those described above, for they created the conditions necessary for former enemies to work together in key initiatives, such as drafting South Africa’s interim constitution, that moved the country towards democracy and out of Apartheid.

Another leadership insight from

Leadership by Soul™, Trademark and © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

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