Some folks, especially in big organizations, ceaselessly bitch & moan about “organizational politics.” “Wipe them out,” they petulantly insist; “we must get on with things.” A lovely sentiment—but it reveals a frightening lack of comprehension of the human animal. (And even close ancestors, like the apes.)
One cure to “ceaseless politics,” it is sometimes said, is a … Transcendent Cause … that brings one and all together in service to a greater goal. To which I can only reply, “In your dreams.”
Yesterday we celebrated the 62nd anniversary of D-Day. Surely D-Day was the sort of cause and occasion to transcend politics! I repeat, “In Your dreams.” To remind myself of the ubiquity of politics-among-humans, I occasionally re-read David Irving’s magisterial The War Between the Generals: Inside the Allied High Command. For your reading enjoyment, here, from the back cover of the book, are a few choice words among the chief participants:
“A man of great mediocrity.”—General George Patton about General Omar Bradley …… “A third-rate general. He never did anything or won any battle that any other general could not have won as well or better.”—General Omar Bradley about Sir Bernard Montgomery …… “If you want to end the war in any reasonable time, you will have to remove Ike’s hand from the control of the land battle.”—Sir Bernard Montgomery about General Dwight Eisenhower …… “One thing that might help win this war is to get someone to shoot King.”—General Dwight Eisenhower about Admiral & Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King …… “Eisenhower, though supposed to be running the land war, is on the golf links at Rhiems—entirely detached and taking practically no part in running the war.”—Sir Alan Brooke, British commander of the armed forces …… “If the unhelpful British attitude continues, then I shall go home.”—General Dwight Eisenhower.
I happen to believe there is a clear message here. Sure we should try to eliminate blatant back-stabbing (though that’s precisely what these generals did to one another—even up to the point of complaining back-channel to Roosevelt & Churchill), but for those who would accomplish great ends, mastery (MASTERY!) of politics is an inescapable must.
Jill Ker Conway was an extremely effective leader of Smith College (and the first woman president of Smith). She explained that, despite her passion for the job, the decision to take it was excruciatingly difficult. One primary factor that tipped the scales toward acceptance was that she had greatly enjoyed the political to-and-fro that marked her tenure as Provost at the University of Toronto, where she was when the Smith offer materialized. Knowing that she was walking into a political fray of the first order, she needed to assess her readiness.
(FYI, the politics of Nobel-level science—eyes on the prize and all that—is as down and dirty as it gets. Except, perhaps, for what goes on—around the globe—when the time to choose a new Pope arises. Surely those are sad blows to the “noble sentiment” purists.)
So would-be achievers, hone your political skills! I’m not encouraging you to become a shit, but I am encouraging you to learn not only to live with, but to love the messiness of interactions among your fellow human beings. I, for one, love it—and it hasn’t hurt my career to do so. And, self-servingly, I don’t think I’ve become a creep in the process.