Uploaded by feli.ciaciazzz

Why leaders need to learn the art of politics

The Power of Politics
Why Leaders Need to Learn
the Art of Influence
When the issue of organizational politics is raised it almost always
arouses a negative connotation. In order to lead, however, you must
learn how to influence others effectively and must put aside the
notion that all political activity in organizations is unethical. In fact, a
leader’s ability to understand organizational politics and build political
skill is essential to his or her advancement.
ntelligence and hard work have
always been necessary for effective
performance and career success. But
these attributes by themselves are
insufficient. To be sure, the knowledge, skills, and abilities that got
you to this point in your career may
not be enough to take you beyond
your present position.
With that said, perhaps this is the
right time in your career to consider
the role of organizational politics.
As much as people would like to
think otherwise, there is no getting
around the fact that organizations
are inherently political arenas,
where the problems attended to and
decisions made say a great deal
more about who is more powerful
than about the nature of the work in
which the organization is engaged.
Then again, you probably already
suspected that.
The aversion that many people
have to the topic of organizational
politics is understandable. When
b y M a t t h e w Va l l e
L I A • V O L U M E 2 6 , N U M B E R 2 • M AY/J U N E 2 0 0 6
politics is talked about, it is almost
always with a negative undertone.
But leaders must learn how to influence others effectively. And they
must put aside any preconceived
notions that all political activity in
organizations is somehow unethical.
Politics is the art of influence, or
the dynamic use of power in organizations. Power is the potential to
influence others and make things
happen, and it usually accrues to
those in leadership positions in the
organization. Politics, however, is a
kind of kinetic energy that actually
makes things happen, and it can be
used effectively (and ethically) at all
levels of the organization. The trick
to power and politics is to accumulate and use power effectively and
for the good of the organization. In
short, a leader’s ability to understand organizational politics and
build political skill is essential to
his or her continued upward trajectory. Without political skill, his or
her chances of capturing the corner
office are slim to none.
So how did organizational life
get so messy (and distasteful)? The
number of factors that must be
attended to and the rate of change in
those factors have created some perplexing contemporary business
problems. To compete successfully
in the current knowledge-based
economy, organizations have eliminated management layers and
implemented team-based structures.
Roles and responsibilities are fluid
and project based. Alternative methods of coordination and control are
necessary to integrate today’s delayered organizations and work
processes. And social interactions
are the primary technology
employed to execute knowledgebased work. So the general messiness can be blamed on the global
economy and the contemporary
work environment.
As today’s work environment has
evolved, the role of the leader has
had to evolve as well. The leader
was once a gatekeeper or controller,
but today’s leader must act as a
coach and mentor, facilitating the
work of project teams and diverse
work groups. The leader must work
with and through others. Remember,
much of leadership is a social influence process. This requires a broad
set of skills and a knowledge of
when to apply them. This is also the
realm of organizational politics.
Consider that political behavior
is influencing behavior as well, in
that an individual attempts to influence others in order to achieve some
end, either personal or organizational. When the leader’s personal
interests and the organization’s
interests are aligned, positive outcomes usually result. When personal
and organizational interests diverge,
the outcomes are usually negative.
Therefore it is the intention of the
influencer (the leader) that qualifies
the influencing behavior. It is usually the exercise of influence in the
pursuit of self-interested, organizationally unsanctioned outcomes that
garners the most public outrage and
media attention. And that is usually
the distasteful side of organizational
politics. But most influencing activities engaged in by leaders are in
alignment with and in support of the
organization’s mission and goals.
Effective leaders manage meaning
and shepherd organizational energy
through influence, coordinating and
enhancing the composite knowledge
and work skills of team members to
create organizational value. Good
leaders are, by necessity, politically
and reflected recently in Political
Skill at Work: Impact on Work
Effectiveness (Davies-Black, 2005),
by Gerald R. Ferris, Sherry L.
Davidson, and Pamela L. Perrewe,
which draws on their twenty years
of study of the issue.
To be politically skillful in an
organization you must be able to
read people and understand why
they do things. If the motivation and
behavior of others is a mystery to
you, how can you expect to influence their actions? You must be
capable of influencing others; past
experience will tell you whether you
have the potential for this. For
instance, everyone has persuaded a
friend to do something easy, but
have you ever persuaded a friend to
do something difficult? Anyone can
manage a group of willing subjects,
but leaders are called on to get people to do difficult (and important)
things. Leaders must have the ability to build and cultivate social networks. Power is enhanced via network effects—the more networks
you are a part of, the greater your
potential to influence others. And
you must possess the integrity and
sincerity necessary to assure people
that your motives are genuine and
intended for the benefit of the
organization. These four dimensions—social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability,
and apparent sincerity—are the
components of political skill that
Matthew Valle is an associate professor in the Love
School of Business at Elon
University. He holds a Ph.D.
So what does it take to be politically skillful in an organization? A
lot of work has gone into answering
this question, going back at least to
the writings of Jeffrey Pfeffer and
Henry Mintzberg in the early 1980s
degree from Florida State
L I A • V O L U M E 2 6 , N U M B E R 2 • M AY/J U N E 2 0 0 6
are needed for effective influencing
(and leadership).
Social Astuteness
Are you tuned in to what others are
thinking or doing? People who are
politically skilled are astute
observers of others and know how
to interact with people in social settings. I usually practice my observation skills by watching people in
airports (while invariably waiting
hours for my connection). You can
pick up a lot about people by “reading” body language and facial
expressions, and that information
helps you understand how to frame
your conversations or interactions
with them. Socially astute individuals read others in much the same
way, and they further benefit from
To be politically skillful
in an organization you
must be able to read
people and understand
why they do things.
having acquired a knowledge of
cause and effect, of behaviors and
consequences, in the workplace.
(They may know, for instance, that
“now is not a good time to approach
Nancy with this” or that “Fred
seems to be in a good mood today;
maybe I’ll pitch my initiative to him
over lunch.”)
Some people are naturally sensitive to others, yet other people need
some time to learn how to interpret
the signals individuals give off.
Being self-aware helps. You need to
gauge the proper response and
attend to how you will present that
response. Everyone has different
faces that he or she presents to others depending on the situation.
Knowing how you come across to
others is helpful in appropriately
matching the tone and style of your
interaction to the situation.
Interpersonal Influence
We are all capable of getting
someone to do something for us. I
once worked for a boss who was
always able to get what he
wanted—by threatening. But
admired leaders excel at interpersonal influence to such an extent
that people want to do something
for them, as if it were their own
idea. To achieve this effectively, you
have to know what people want or
want to hear, and you have to know
how to adjust your behavior or
request to appeal to the person’s
needs or motivations.
This just sounds like good leadership, doesn’t it? Yes, all leadership
is situational, in that leaders adapt
their behaviors to the requirements
of the situation. And everyone with
whom you interact is a different situation. Effective leaders know how
to apply the appropriate behavior at
the appropriate time with the right
person in order to elicit the desired
response. That may sound manipulative. It is, but not in the way you
might think. Organizations are about
ideas, but not all ideas are valid or
valuable. Someone has to select the
ideas that are useful and discard
those that are not. And if enough
useful ideas are selected, the organization thrives.
Persuading people to adopt a particular big idea is a matter of influence. Match the right ideas with the
right leader—a leader who is capable of building support and enthusiasm for those ideas—and there will
be success. Being flexible in your
choice of influencing behaviors (as
the situation requires) goes a long
way toward helping you be an effective leader.
Networking Ability
I once heard a story about the network effect and the perception of
power. When Lyndon Johnson was a
college student, he had a job as an
assistant for the college president.
Perhaps assistant is a stretch; he
was actually a gofer. But that didn’t
deter him from networking. He got
hold of a large, wooden desk and
had it placed just outside the president’s office. Arriving promptly
every morning just as the office
opened, Johnson, dressed in suit and
tie, would sit and attend to his
“duties.” Sitting where he was and
dressed as he was, people naturally
assumed that he was the person to
see about meeting with the president. And Johnson did nothing to
dispel that perception. Over time,
people learned to come to Johnson
to make appointments with the president, and if Johnson was unfavorably impressed their requests were
denied. Johnson understood early on
the power of networks, and that
knowledge served him well in
Congress and the White House.
Leaders with strong political
skills are adept at networking.
Networks are social constructions
based on friendships, alliances, and
coalitions. These alliances are useful for influencing others—the
greater the network, the greater the
potential influence. So there is great
power in networks, and politically
skilled leaders know this and use
that power to their advantage. The
accumulation of friendships and
connections, or social capital,
allows politically skilled leaders to
leverage these alliances for the benefit of the unit or organization.
These leaders are usually able to
capture more resources for their unit
or organization and are appreciated
for that ability. Additionally, as a
result of membership in certain net-
L I A • V O L U M E 2 6 , N U M B E R 2 • M AY/J U N E 2 0 0 6
works leaders enhance their reputations, and team members look with
favor on the benefits flowing from
this. Do you make friendships easily? Do you have a large social network composed of subnetworks in
the domains of work, family, and
community? Do you leverage these
network connections to create and
take advantage of opportunities? If
not, you are missing out on a great
source of potential for influencing
and leading others.
Apparent Sincerity
Sincerity? Yes. Apparent sincerity?
What does that mean? It may not
sound appealing or desirable, but it
reflects the fact that when it comes
to influencing, how others perceive
your intentions is more critical than
your intentions per se. Remember,
others cannot know (for sure) your
true intentions. They perceive intentions by making judgments or educated guesses. If others perceive that
you are honest and sincere about
whatever it is you want them to support or do and that you possess no
ulterior or self-serving motives, the
influencing attempt will most likely
succeed. But if you appear insincere
or disingenuous, they will interpret
your actions as manipulative and
Machiavellian, and that is bad for
your reputation and your political
life. You may be labeled a political
animal or hack, not worthy of trust,
confidence, or support. Of course it
would be nice if sincerity were
always genuine, but I am sure most
leaders can recall a time when for
the good of the organization they
had to sell a strategy or goal they
disagreed with.
Let’s take a look at two leaders who
found different ways to apply their
political skills. Both these leaders
were socially astute, successful at
interpersonal influence, had devel-
oped substantial and effective personal networks, and were perceived
to be sincere. The outcomes,
though, were quite different.
The first leader, Cliff, was a very
effective organizational politician.
He knew how to read people and
respond to what he read. He was a
chameleon. One minute he could
express sadness and commiserate
with someone, and in the next
minute he could easily switch to a
happy disposition. Whatever the situation called for, Cliff could be
counted on to conjure up the right
empathetic emotion. He was particularly good at doing this with superiors, and ingratiation was his primary weapon of choice. He knew
what people wanted, and he always
implied that his immediate attention
would be directed toward the fulfillment of each and every desire.
Cliff could influence others. With
superiors he would reason using
logic and rational persuasion. He
would press the target of his influence in subtle ways, probing the
outer defenses for a weakness from
which he could plan his clandestine
assault. With subordinates Cliff was
a master of influence—coercive
influence. Impediments to his will
were crushed quickly and efficiently. Intelligent subordinates
learned that his way was the only
way, and all resistance (and innovation) subsequently vanished. In
Cliff’s eyes harmony was obtained
and his employees were one big,
happy family. Everyone charged
toward whatever end Cliff desired
(however disastrous it might turn
out to be). He was never wrong
because no one dared tell him he
It may seem that someone like
Cliff, someone so easily found out,
could be outwitted by an end run—
or by a well-placed memo to the
next member up in the chain of
command. But Cliff was too smart
for that. He had built up a substan-
tial network and knew how to use it
to get his way. He also knew that
his superiors, engaged as they were
in the weighty issues of the day, had
a strong policy of decentralization.
“Let the managers make their own
decisions,” they would say, “and
trust them to do what is in the best
interests of the organization.”
Everyone was trapped.
Cliff exuded sincerity to his
superiors, but others in the organiza-
Organizations are about
ideas, but not all ideas
are valid or valuable.
tion knew the truth. Cliff was working for Team Cliff, whereas all the
others had this idea that they were
working to further the organization’s mission. When Cliff first
joined the organization, people in
the group were prepared to cut him
some slack as their new leader, but
his early actions showed a consistent lack of attention to the collective work of the organization.
People came to the conclusion that
he could not be trusted. Cliff was a
smooth political operator, to be
sure, but largely because of him the
organization was at best mediocre.
The second example is more
inspiring. Dwight David Eisenhower
was a master of military and political leadership. He rose from Army
general to Army chief of staff to
NATO commander to thirty-fourth
president of the United States. His
rise was driven equally by intellect
and long, hard work at cultivating
According to Stephen E.
Ambrose, author of Eisenhower:
L I A • V O L U M E 2 6 , N U M B E R 2 • M AY/J U N E 2 0 0 6
Soldier, General of the Army,
President-Elect, 1890–1952 (Simon
& Schuster, 1983), the seeds of
Eisenhower’s political skill were
sown at an early age. His West Point
classmates regarded him as a natural
athlete and leader and someone who
was good at team play, much of
which involves resolving disputes
and getting everyone to focus on a
common goal. Eisenhower was an
astute observer of people and could
sense what they needed, in word or
deed, to accomplish the required
outcome. Planning during World
War II for the Normandy invasion,
Eisenhower was an
astute observer of people and could sense
what they needed, in
word or deed, to
accomplish the
required outcome.
for example, involved many competing perspectives and strong personalities, but Eisenhower was able to
win over people by assuring them
that their perspectives had been
heard and fairly considered.
Eisenhower was highly skilled at
interpersonal influence, and his
good-natured personality drew others to him. They were impressed by
his scrupulous honesty, selfreliance, and determination.
Eisenhower had the highest regard
for the American citizen-soldier, and
those in the armed forces returned
that respect in kind. He had the trust
and confidence of the common man,
as evidenced by his overwhelming
presidential election victories in
1952 and 1956. Never forceful or
pushy, Eisenhower calmly but resolutely reasoned his way through
difficulties and challenges, ever
mindful that others would ultimately
bear the responsibility, and suffer
the consequences, of carrying out
his plans.
If any characteristic of
Eisenhower’s political skill was preeminent, it was his ability to build
and cultivate powerful networks.
Much of his early career in the
Army involved staff work, but the
quality of his work was soon
noticed by powerful generals—Fox
Conner, Douglas MacArthur, and
George C. Marshall—men who
mentored Eisenhower and guided
his career. His friendships with men
such as Generals George S. Patton
and Omar Bradley were to pay dividends in the Allied assault on
Fortress Europe. His postwar work
at NATO and as president involved
interactions with many of the same
high-level military and political
leaders with whom he had been in
contact throughout World War II.
Everyone with whom Eisenhower
interacted believed he was sincere
and honest in his dealings with
them. It may have been
Eisenhower’s political agenda, born
not of command but of consent, that
engendered the greatest trust and
confidence in his abilities. In a life
spent in service to others,
Eisenhower performed his duties so
completely and honestly that there
is no doubt his ultimate goal was
the prosperity of the nation to which
he felt so deeply indebted.
Organizational politics is best understood as a neutral phenomenon,
although like leadership and other
forms of social influence it can be
used in both good and bad ways.
Political skill is the ability to read
and understand others and to use that
understanding to influence others to
achieve organizational goals.
Building political skill starts with
developing the ability to accurately
read and respond to others in a way
that imparts a sincere desire to work
with them toward the accomplishment of important objectives. The
interpersonal influence exercised
must be both subtle and forceful,
intended to impart your desires in a
noncontrolling and unobtrusive way.
Political leaders must build and
nurture social networks, expanding
the range of influence with each connection made. Networks require continual maintenance and often require
the lubrication provided by the giveand-take of social interaction.
Finally, you must believe in what
you are doing and that what you are
doing is for the right reasons.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, doing what is right is made
less difficult by the nature of the
contemporary workplace and political processes. Whereas the work of
the past often constrained our discussions within the limits of our
singular cognitive domains, political
activity allows us to gauge the collective will of our colleagues, to
manage our shared meanings
together and decide what is important, and ultimately to do what is
L I A • V O L U M E 2 6 , N U M B E R 2 • M AY/J U N E 2 0 0 6
Copyright of Leadership in Action is the property of Center for Creative Leadership and its content may not be
copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written
permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.