Leadership capability patterns: Politics

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Oct 9th, 2014

Part of an ongoing series of articles on leadership capability patterns; this article looks at some leadership patterns that relate to politics and conflict.

Let’s imagine a large organisation where you have the opportunity to introduce a significant new department or service. While your role may have some elements of delivery, you could expect that a large proportion of your time would be dedicated to setting this up and subsequently operating and running it. An exciting opportunity?

The challenge

What, however, if this was so novel that there was nobody who understood it enough to support it? What if your line-management was resistant to it? What would you do? I once had a situation a little like this, when I was younger and more naïve, and here’s what I did:

I believed in what I had been brought in to achieve, so I reached out to experts outside the organisation and found great support. I was able to bounce ideas off people who had already been through this themselves, and received fantastic advice, and made some good first steps with good feedback.

However, within the organisation, I was effectively operating in a vacuum; it was difficult, but I thought that if I just worked harder and kept a positive mental attitude, then the results would speak for themselves. Ultimately, without internal support, the launch was not successful; however, this was a great learning opportunity and I grew immeasurably through how I handled it. 

Insights

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The key to this challenge is a problem faced by all organisations, that of working with a limited pool of resources; whether that’s time, people, or money. Even in the most seemingly collegiate of environments, it should be expected that people will compete for those resources, and in some circumstances people will fight dirty.

Bolman and Deal (Reframing Organizations, 2013) believe that this gladiatorial behaviour is entirely natural, especially in larger organisations where people have more to lose.

We need to recognise this reality, and ensure that we have sufficient support for what we’re trying to do. Find a sponsor, form a coalition of mutual interest. While this sounds like it’s spending energy and attention in the wrong place, by avoiding this we ensure that we will fail.

Leadership capability framework

Being a successful leader, in trying times, means being able to identify who has interest in our endeavours and who does not, and how we can work actively to gain their support. I represent this with the politics–alignment axis in the leadership capability patterns.

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Some leadership patterns relating to politics and alignment

  • Know your stakeholders: this has to be the first stage of understanding their level of interest in and influence over what it is your trying to achieve; once you understand that, continue to work on building a relationship with them.
  • Accept that conflict is natural: Be wise to the political reality that there are scarce resources and that people will fight over them, recognise that there is stress in that and actively work to avoid that.
  • Find forums to resolve conflict: When problems do occur, and they will, find or establish appropriate forums for resolving them; whether that’s within your own area or with leaders of other teams and business units.
  • Collective solutions: Where the conflict is within your own team and is about the work rather than personal issues, look to harness the collective wisdom of the team, use your facilitation skills to encourage insights and suggestions from them.
  • Situational leadership: When it’s not possible to broker a resolution within your team, then you need to get hard and lay down the line, but leave that as a later resort.

Doing this really well I think of this as the fifth capability level in the leadership capability patterns, focusing on power and connectivity.

Explore the related articles in this series:

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