Politics the path to achievement

Tom Peters On Excellence

WE HEAR again and again that Americans are turned off politics. Frustrated people in business sing the same blues: "This place is so political. All we do is meet, meet, meet, and talk, talk, talk." Oh come on! The fact is, almost nothing, from hearth to the heart of Congress, can be accomplished alone. Even writers and artists depend on communities of patrons, critics, curators and publishers.

Politics is life - the basis for real "can-do" as opposed to the imaginary sort brought to you by "strong leaders".

Every relationship - friend, spouse or business associate - is political and rests on lots of give, some take and shared assumptions. To be sure, divorces occur regularly and business partnerships split up all the time. The fact is, most such failures are political - ie, failure to invest sufficiently in the relationship. The meaning of "invest" is clear: paying the price of frequent compromise and, above all, spending time.

Often as not, the time spent feels "unproductive" but it's usually not. In truth, the wise devote most of their waking hours to "checking out" where the other person is "coming from"; trying to understand what sorts of things went on yesterday that led to today's blow-up over a trivial remark.

For lots of business people, meetings (meetings, and more meetings) are politics at its worst, and an epic waste. I have been to useless meetings, to be sure. But the point many miss is that meetings really aren't about doing things. They are about figuring out the way so-and-so is thinking, and feeling, paving the way for an initiative that is still months off, edging toward some eventual consensus about this or that.

(Some do use meetings to grandstand, intimidate and establish their power vis--vis someone else. But in my experience, these people usually get their comeuppance.When the time comes for promotion, the unartful conniver is rejected: "Jack is just not a good colleague. His `bottom line' results are not worth the price."

(Jack, of course, will scream bloody murder. "I'm a victim of politics," he will doubtless tell any and all.)

Some gravitate to small firms to avoid politics. Forget it. The only place to avoid politics is in a cabin, by yourself, with no electricity, somewhere deep in the wilderness

Small companies are usually less "bureaucratic". For example, there is a lot less paper shuffling. But all organisations with more than one employee are political. And all companies with three or more employees have cliques. (Some decisions will go two against one. And Mr or Ms One will at times feel as "victimised" by the other two as does the big-company operations chief who says, "The accountants are ganging up on me to score political points in front of the boss.")

Is the upshot of all politics a bland solution, a mentality of lowest common denominator? Or hapless compromise of values and perpetual inaction?

Yes, partially. No successful leader (nor worthy friend nor contributing family member) is unsullied by politics. The effective human is the compromised human. Historian James MacGregor Burns, in his book Leadership, discussed "transactional leadership" and "transforming leadership". The latter, he wrote, was practiced by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who, almost literally, moved heaven and earth. Yet these most inspiring of leaders spent most of their time on transactional affairs - the nitty gritty of dealing with followers and, especially, one's inner circle, minding bruised egos, meeting, talking, meeting, talking, meeting some more.

Almost all effective leaders (whether in government, business or the arts) love politics and enjoy the intrigues. They delight in the journey itself. They invest heavily in relationships (to an extent that amazes bystanders) and are expert in reading eye-shifts, toe taps and a hundred of other nuances of body language.

Indeed, they may bend too far in the breeze and promise the essence of their dream. They end up drifting further away from any meritorious goal. On the other hand, without the constant bending, twisting, tacking, there is no chance - none - of accomplishing anything of significance.

In the end, to hate "politics" is to eschew most forms of achievement. There is nothing wrong with leading the unpolitical life of the hermit. Just don't be surprised when you fail to be in the Forbes magazine list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, merit a footnote in the history books, or have many people at your funeral.

TPG Communications

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