To succeed, learn to love politics, then forget them

ON EXCELLENCE

May 02, 1994|By TOM PETERS

All organizations, even the one-person variety, are infuriatingly political. That is, if politics infuriate you.

Frankly, I love politics. And also ignore them. Both frames of mind are important to success in business or most anything else.

Anyone who loves accomplishing things must learn to love politics. (Yes, I insist on the word "love.") Moreover, for better or for worse, politics are as important for dictators as for Democrats. You can't take people where they aren't willing to go. Saddam Hussein understands this as well as Mohandas Gandhi did.

Politics means inducing and managing creative contention, giving people air time, building winning coalitions.

They are the human element (there are no others) of the implementation process. We're all in favor of getting things done. We must, therefore, be in favor of politics. Politics is implementation.

TC The best leaders, including sole proprietors, who by definition depend on others for survival, spend day and night massaging relationships and egos (that is, working at politics).

Politics is about releasing the potential in followers, inspiring them to remake your vision to fit their passions -- and then to implement it with zest.

And politics is simultaneously about squelching potential; successfully implementing anything means we can't all get our own sweet way all the time.

Politics means loving people; getting a kick out of being around folks at the front line (the real army of doers at a Ritz-Carlton hotel or at Merck Pharmaceutical Co.); and enjoying the fray itself.

To engage lustily in politics at Bill Clinton's level, or yours or mine, also means developing a tolerance for bloody noses -- mostly our own. Those with a thirst for action, especially once they've developed a record for getting things done, make enemies or provoke cynics who see all politics as brown-nosing (which, of course, is largely true).

And that leads to my second point: The best way to practice politics is to ignore them.

I've worked in many an office where "office politics" were the primary entertainment, absorbing hours of each day. What a waste to engage in such stuff. Or to pay attention to it.

While there's no more important activity for implementers than politics (relationship-building), there's no more useless activity than worrying about office politics.

For heaven's sake, don't sap your energy and your time fretting about the end-run that Sam is pulling on you. Just get on with selling your proposal, gaining adherents, field-testing your ideas, whatever.

Most end-runs, it turns out, are not malicious. They're just the acts of people who, heaven forbid, disagree with you and are working just as hard to get their way as you are to get yours.

But, you protest, some engage in genuine back stabbing.

Tsk. Tsk. If your back isn't a mass of scar tissue from past wounds, you never got elected president of your high school class, and you surely wouldn't have started USA Today or CNN or merged Time and Warner.

Sure, some folks spread rumors about you, trivial or outrageous. But don't put your boss down as an idiot. She's a big girl, with her own scars to prove it -- and she wouldn't be where she is if she couldn't tell the difference between raucous disagreement (Sam thinks your proposal is stupid, even dangerous) and malice (Sam claims that on weekends you knock off 7-Elevens).

Truth is, the psychopaths who practice office politics for politics' sake mostly get their just desserts.

"All power is trust," Margaret Thatcher once said. She understood that although one must tack and jibe to survive in the real world, one's word is one's bond. Effective legislators such as Sens. William Cohen, R-Maine, and Bill Bradley, D-N.J., understand, as does any sensible corporate boss.

Real creeps can waste your time, give you fits and win one now and again. But the best way for you to lose is to take them seriously and fight slur with slur. You'll end up shooting yourself professionally, and not in the foot.

Business ought to be fun. And for it to be so, politics must be fun. Ask any decent salesperson. Sales is the premier playground for politics. That is, salespeople have no formal authority whatsoever over the person who most influences their success or failure -- the prospective customer. The salesperson needs, of course, a neat product at the right price; but there are usually several of those to choose from.

The real difference between winners and losers in the selling contest is trust and relationship-building -- i.e. politics.

If you don't love politics -- and ignore them -- you're in for a rough and ultimately ineffective ride to anywhere.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.

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