Category Archives: Organizational Politics

The Problem with Politics

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I abhor politics. That’s rather uncomfortable for me to admit. The consequences are substantial. An immediate impact for me is my recurring and persistent resistance to writing. There seems to be a kind of internal power struggle when I try to put pen to paper. Whether real or imagined, I would rather ignore or even deny the forces of power and control that stifle my creative self-expression than risk – what? What is the risk? I fear disruptive if not destructive conflict that threatens to re-align or maybe even redefine me. Politics messes with peoples’ commitments and loyalty. I know I am not alone.
Organizational Politics can be like an inter-personal game of chess

Politics has been banned from my book club. I have been a member of a local men’s book group for more than 15 years. We read diverse fiction and non-fiction. Along with discussing the characters, themes, and worldview in what we read, we inevitably share something of ourselves. One member, in reviewing his concerns of the previous month, shared his disgust with Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s run for the U.S. Presidency. At least one other book club member was offended. After that evening, we agreed via email not to discuss “politics” at book club. I gave my passive consent. But I felt something had been lost. What? Our willingness to respectfully disclose and perhaps debate our respective values and beliefs without self-censoring.

Organizational politics has many faces. From years of leadership consulting, I have repeatedly witnessed the consequences of avoiding discussion and debate. The very act of avoidance is political. The scrubbing and sanitizing of corporate messaging to avoid difficult realities (e.g. yet another round of lay-offs) and inadvertent implications (this is not the end of the down-sizing) recurs on a regular basis. The intent is clear communication. The impact is often further disillusionment and skepticism. The political games are played upward as well as downward in the hierarchy. As one project leader in a Fortune 100 R&D organization stated, “It’s a fine line between telling the truth and keeping a project alive.” He was not being dishonest. He was telling it like it is. Organizational politics prevail just beneath surface in every company.

“Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is the inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise influence.”

Families are also political. We seldom talk about them in terms of power and influence but the political dynamics are prevalent, whether we think of it that way or not. When a child learns to go to her father to request an extended curfew after her mother has already said “no,” (but before her father can confer with her mother), that child is learning how to manipulate the system to her advantage. She is political. In my family of origin, as I and my siblings matured and became more independent, the simple act of a parent asking one of us to say a prayer became political, though no one would name it as such. The request to pray was perhaps an unintended but nevertheless powerful expression of wanting continuing influence and expressed loyalty.

I hate politics. Yet I write about it. And I am thinking more and more about organizational politics. Why? Because I want to identify and name power and influence for what it is wherever people gather. As I write I am becoming more familiar with myself and the power at play in my life, past and present.

Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is an inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise control, hopefully for a greater common good. Leadership that fails to acknowledge political realities casts a shadow that diminishes trust and destroys loyalty. Face it, we’re all political!

Money, Anger, Sex: Conspiracy of Silence at Penn State

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Responsible leadership requires one to listen for what is not being said, to read between the lines, to look beyond prevailing attitudes and dispositions.  Recent events involving the Penn State football program dramatize how institutional pride and organizational politics conspire to conceal untouchable, unspeakable, even unbelievable actions and behaviors.  Our human, all too human inclinations and proclivities can derail any of us, undermining even the most noble mission.

“I want you to write a spiritual autobiography in terms of your relationship to money, anger, and sex.”

Many years ago when I was a young, aspiring professional, trying to find my way in the world, a spiritual guide and trusted confidant gave me an assignment: write a “spiritual autobiography”. I didn’t really grasp what he was asking me to do. I inquired for clarity and understanding. He instructed me to just take some blank sheets of paper (or my journal, if I had one) and to begin writing. He said I couldn’t do it wrong. I still remember clearly how he then paused, and added: “But I want you to write a spiritual autobiography in terms of your relationship to money, anger, and sex.” This was an unfamiliar, indeed uncomfortable, task.

As the years have turned into decades, I have thought on more than one occasion about the impact of completing this assignment and the insights it revealed to me. As a result I have verified, for myself, a hypothesis that has proven to be true in more than one context, including today at Penn State.  In virtually every community – whether  business, education, religious institution, or home  – there is a conspiracy of silence about one or more of these dimensions of human experience. Despite good intentions or the most open and accepting environment, a self-consciousness or inhibition seems to prevail, sometimes as a result of cultural norms or even social taboo. Organizational politics are at play as well. Case in point:

Money: Penn State Football revenue is $70 million.
Anger: Police disperse Penn State student riot.
Sex: Extreme measures to hide scandal.

My hypothesis concerning this prevalent conspiracy of silence is further verified by my experience in the following way:  I have noticed that engaging others in a respectful conversation or dialogue about any one of these dimensions, almost inevitably, leads to some personal transformation or healthy shift in community dynamics.

conspiracy of silence

The courage to discuss the “undiscussables” differentiates leadership from management.   A conspiracy of silence drains energy and ultimately destroys integrity, both personal and corporate.

Leadership requires us to step outside our comfort zones. Money, anger, sex!  Test my hypothesis for yourself.  Pay attention to what’s not being reported, what’s not being noticed, what’s not being said.

The Paradox of Leading Like Steve

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The Paradox of Steve Jobs and his style of LeadershipEven as the world remembers the accomplishments of Steve Jobs and his powerful brand of innovative leadership, we are tempted to want to emulate him. You don’t need to like or even know Steve Jobs to respect and admire what he accomplished. Jobs himself sought to re-constitute and renew Apple University in the closing months of his tenure as CEO. Today Apple U is tasked with the challenge of “institutionalizing” the insights and wisdom of this remarkable man, seeking to assure continuity and sustainability at Apple. There is, however, a problematic paradox in this: emulating others is not what made Steve Jobs great.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma, living with the results of other people’s thinking…” Jobs himself declared in his Stanford 2005 Commencement Address. As the articles and accolades are piling up, he readily becomes a larger-than-life leader. We too readily forget the unconventional path he followed. He “broke the rules”. He was not afraid to fail. He knew that leadership is born from the courage to be who you are.

We all need to learn to think more for ourselves. This requires time and effort, most especially in an era when the answer to most everything can be “googled”. Young entrepreneurs and aspiring leaders may be tempted to follow Job’s example – including his reputed harsh, often impatient, sometimes out right dictatorial leadership style. The rules which you and I need to break, however, cannot be dictated by someone else. Nor can they be “institutionalized”. What worked for Jobs will not work for you or me.

“If you look at my life, I’ve never gotten it right the first time. It always takes me twice.”

From the very beginning Steve Jobs was a leader who took risks. He took enormous risks financially to innovate in the late 1970’s. From his early “two guys in a garage” Apple computers all the way through Apple’s early success, his work at NeXT and then Pixar – Jobs invested in his own beliefs, his own truths. He put his own future on the line and found himself veering way outside the established norms of innovation, company structure, and certainly management.

Steve Jobs wasn’t afraid to fail. As he said, “If you look at my life, I’ve never gotten it right the first time. It always takes me twice.” This is a bold way to live and lead – always ready to fail at least once before actually finding the best solution or any kind of success. “Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to me, ” he declared in the same Stanford Commencement Address.

A young Steve Jobs

The difference between Steve Jobs and most of us is having the courage to live into the power of his own deepest convictions. Whatever models for effective leadership have influenced you, learn the value of being different. Discover how to capitalize on the more “marginal” aspects of your personality. Be creative; don’t force fit yourself into others’ leadership mold. These and other “development skills” will equip you to empower other leaders even as you engage with the challenges and dilemmas of the world around you by courageously being yourself.

“Have the confidence to follow your own heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path,” he said. Courage in the face of obstacles, even life-threatening illness, characterizes Job’s leadership.

leading like steve jobs

In breaking the rules, Steve Jobs not only helped to revive and renew Apple; he has left his mark on history. Job’s leadership, whether he was likable or not, was authentic. It was his. He led from his center. He broke the paradigms of technical design as well as many traditional leadership maxims.

Following the example of Steve Jobs, think for yourself, be yourself, lead from your center. Do not simply try to emulate someone else, even Steve Jobs.

The Foundation of Leadership

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Machu Picchu - FoundationsI marvel at the profound stability as well as the natural alignment that characterizes Machu Picchu!

While visiting this renowned city of the Inca Empire last week, I found myself comparing the meticulous attention to the “natural” fit of the rocks and stones with the recurring re-engineering and re-organizing I encounter week after week in large business enterprises. Even the most agile leadership teams are struggling to find enduring stability in an environment of continuing economic turmoil.

The stone foundations of Machu Picchu were built and shaped to fit in place without any mortar or joints. Some stones were used in their natural state with little or no alteration. The natural landscape was optimized for purposes of sustainability. Furthermore, the entire complex is situated in alignment with the sun, the moon, and the stars. At the seasonal equinoxes, natural light is framed and focused by openings designed to cast bright beams in otherwise dark places.

More than ever today we need leaders who build foundations that are sustainable, aligned with the Laws of the Universe.

A client recently asked me, “What are the foundations of leadership, Steve ?” Without much hesitation I responded, “passion and purpose”. I could have given a short list of critical leadership competencies or core leadership skills. But I did not.

More than ever today we need leaders who build foundations that are sustainable, aligned with the Laws of the Universe. We need to evaluate how we strive to survive by using our own versions of “mortar and bricks” – the latest org re-design, or the newest IT system, or the most recent effort at process improvement. Do we really need all that? Do those efforts deter us from dealing with more fundamental questions? The challenge is to establish an enduring relationship to one another and a cause greater than ourselves which creates value rather than depletes it. We need better alignment with the Universe. We need to assess our foundational work.

I may be idealizing what the Incas built. And how they did it. (How DID they do it?!) But the foundations remain on the mountain top. How do you answer the question: What are the foundations of leadership?

Leadership Up in the Air: Pilots Challenge Safety Culture

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When to be defiant? When to be compliant?

Management systems and corporate culture bring order to complex organizations and provide stability. But leaders necessarily need to step out, go beyond, and risk deviating from business as usual. Responsible individuals in the trenches of corporate America know that, as I illustrated in my recent blog entry about leaders Testing Organizational Culture.Choosing defiance may pose substantial risks for a leader.

Risking defiance rather than compliance can be a very costly leadership act.

US Airways pilots recently challenged management by surfacing conflict over a pilot’s decision not to take off because of a faulty power unit when pushing back from the gate. It is difficult to know what politics may be at play here. But given the amount of time I spend on airplanes, I give the benefit of the doubt to the pilot who refused to fly. As stated in the report by the US Airlines Pilot Association , “At US Airways, pilots who refuse direct orders are putting their jobs at risk.”

I am acutely aware that given the continuing economic recession, employees at all levels of an organization are concerned about their jobs being at risk. Risking defiance rather than compliance can be a very costly leadership act. But leaders must be willing to break the rules. By defying orders to fly, these pilots are challenging the safety culture of US Airways.

We need more leaders willing to challenge the powers that be, most of all when our future is up in the air.

Testing Organizational Culture

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Culture is the glue that holds our world together, our human-all-too-human world. It is also the primary force in deterring or discouraging rule-breaking. And so it should be. Social contracts and community standards are essential to preserve and maintain a sense of order.

Organizational culture can be a company’s most competitive advantage – difficult to replicate and tenacious enough to endure. BUT it is also the arena in which leaders must step out, go beyond, risk deviating, break the rules – with integrity.

Consider these verbatim comments from individuals in very successful Fortune 100 companies:

“You can work on most anything you want as long as you report it correctly.”

“Strictly speaking you’re breaking the rules. You have to go against the rules to survive and get anything done.”

“There is a fine line between telling the truth and keeping a project alive.”

“Large bureaucratic organizations ask people to be dishonest all the time. This is the biggest de-motivator.”

I know these people as individuals of integrity who believe in what they are doing and want to make a difference. They are not violating any laws. But they are testing the organizational culture in which they strive to excel. They are “breaking the rules”.

To achieve breakthroughs rather than breakdowns, often there is simply no alternative but to break the rules.