Politically competent leaders

Political competence, according to Samuel Bacharach is the missing “black box” of leadership success – that mysterious thing no one wants to talk about. It is the one competence all leaders need, yet one that they never develop. Effective leadership depends on this hidden competence.

Leadership is not the ability to generate a good idea, there is an abundance of good ideas. Today’s most pressing problem is how to turn good idea into action.

It is easy to be told that you need to change how you deal with your customer; change how you focus on your product core technology; change how you measure your results; change how you approach the culture. But it is difficult to know how to put these ideas in place to make things happen. Many people know what needs to be done, but few can leverage the energy and support of others to do it.

The difference between successful leaders who implement ideas and those who fail to make things happen may be a question of their political competence. Successful leaders not only push an idea, but understand the opposition, get people to their side and make things happen.

Once a time the ability to make things happen was largely a function of your talent or position. The higher your position, the easier it was to make things happen. Power may be seen as getting people to do something in spite of their resistance.

This is our traditional notion of power and authority. Some would maintain that if you have the authority, the knowledge, or the resource to make you powerful, you will be able to push your agenda. But often powerful people do fail.

The question is not only one of power, but also one of political competence. Power without political competence may achieve some short-term success, but is likely to doom you to long term failure. Political competence may facilitate the success of those who are not obviously powerful or in high positions.

The key to making things happen is not simply a matter of more power, more input, or decision making authority. The key to true leadership is the development of political competence.


Three Steps to Success


Bacharach discerns three steps of political competence: mapping the political terrain; getting the right people on your side; and making things happen.

Mapping the Political Terrain: Today, the real conflict is not between those who resist change and those who advocate change. Conflict is over the change agenda. No one will come out and say “Things are great as they are and I am against any change.” “Instead, they will say “Let’s wait. We have to take a different type of action.” Therefore, political competence demands that you develop the skill to analyze and understand the agenda of others in order to anticipate how they will react to your efforts.


Getting the Right People on your Side: Without a coalition, you are alone, and the risk is much greater than any likely reward. With a coalition, you improve the chances of implementing your proposal successfully, or surviving unintended consequences of your initiative, and of enhancing your position for pursuing future opportunities. The ability to build guiding coalitions in organisations today is not just a skill – it is an absolute necessity for survival and success.

When you shift into a coalition state of mind, you see that the action you are seeking is the beginning of a multi-step campaign whose success is predicated on the assumption that you can get others to join you. Coalitions are a proactive mechanism to enhance participation.


Making Things Happen: Even after you have the right people on board, often them to buy in, and establish a coalition, you have more to do. Politically competent leaders know that while thy may initiate a vision or a goal; they can only make things happen with the assistance of others.

It is not enough to mobilise your coalition; you need to sustain it. Putting your ideas in place is a matter of solidifying your support, working out the differences, and networking and diffusing your ideas.

Even if you have a buy-in, you need to make sure of common purposes so that differences will not tear your coalition asunder.


Three Resulting Roles


Most change efforts fail because leaders neglect one of the three elements of the political competence. Bacharach believes that mastering only part of the process will lead, at best, to partial success or role play.

Political Analyst: When you have only mapped your political terrain, but failed to build a coalition, we would say you are a political analyst – those who are can anticipate the reaction of others and understand their agenda, but cannot win others to their side.

They cannot or will not go through the dialogue and interaction necessary to build a coalition. Political analysts may try to make things happen but they think that by simply identifying the interests of individuals and key units, they have done enough. They don’t realise that mapping is only the first step to making things happen.

Consensus Builder: Consensus builders are everywhere. These are folks who do their political mapping, understand the terrain of allies and resistors, and spend time building coalitions of support. The problem is, that is where they stop.

They never seem to get past that stage. They cannot mobilize their supporters in a way that makes things happen. Consensus builders have strong process capabilities. They can prolong meetings into marathon sessions with their diatribe.


Politically Competent Leader: Politically competent leaders reduce the risk of acting on inadequate or incomplete information by getting as many people as possible on their side.

The process of identifying allies and resistors and then moving on to negotiate with them by discussing one issue versus multiple issues, establishing credibility, and justifying action – assures that political leaders create a dialogue that will force much valuable information to surface. Politically competent leaders make better decision – if not perfect ones – and take action based on much more information than leaders who just forges ahead with their ideas without getting people on their side.

The coalition building process reduces the risk of making a decision based on the spot or one-sided information. Building a coalition is a search process for the best solution.

The act of building a coalition, getting people together, solidifying and expanding the coalition, make the politically competent leader less vulnerable to criticism. When critics attack, the coalition makes it easier for politically competent leaders to deflect criticism and move ahead with their plans.

Politically competent leaders are often rewarded for their efforts. They are widely praised, and they build tremendous political currency, allowing them to take on future projects with greater risk. Politically competent leaders are protected from criticism and recrimination, while the political analyst and consensus builder are not well positioned.

Politically competent leaders need to leverage the halo effect to expand their coalition of support and to prepare for the next project.

We need to demystify political competence, develop it, and make it accessible to all. Political competence, like other core competences, is composed of skills that are teachable and learnable. It is the defining capability that will lead to long term success.

By Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)

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