Like It or Lump It, Politics Is Life

Tom Peters

We hear again and again that Americans are turned off by politics: Give us a leader on a white horse. Inject “can do” into the national policy gridlock. Frustrated business people sing the same blues: “This place is so damned political.” “All we do is meet, meet, meet, talk, talk, talk.” “Only the brown-nosers get ahead around here.”

Oh come on! The fact is, almost nothing, from hearth to the House of Representatives in Washington, can be accomplished solo. Even writers and artists are dependent on large communities of patrons, critics, curators, and publishers.

Politics is life. Politics is the basis for real can do, as opposed to the imaginary sort brought to you by “strong leaders.”

Every relationship, with friend, spouse, or business associate, is political, rests on lots of give, some take, and the sharing of assumptions. To be sure, divorces occur regularly and business partnerships split up all the time. The fact is, such failures are political — i.e., the failure to invest sufficiently in a relationship. The meaning of “invest” is clear: paying the price of frequent compromise and, above all, spending time.

Often as not, the time spent feels “unproductive,” but it’s usually not. In truth, the wise devote most of their waking hours “checking out” where the other person is “coming from”; trying to understand what sorts of things went on for him or her yesterday that led to today’s unexpected blow up over a trivial remark.

For lots of business people, meetings (meetings, and more meetings) are politics at its worst — and an epic waste. I’ve been to useless meetings, to be sure. But the point many miss is that meetings really aren’t about doing things. They’re about figuring out the way so-and-so is thinking and feeling, paving the way for an initiative that’s still months off, edging toward some eventual consensus about this or that.

(Some people do use meetings to grandstand, backstab, intimidate and establish their power position vis a vis someone else. But in my experience, these bad actors usually get their comeuppance. When the time comes for the next promotion, the unartful conniver is rejected: “Jack is just not a good colleague. His ‘bottom line’ results are not worth the price.” Jack, of course, will scream bloody murder. “I’m a victim of politics,” he’ll doubtless tell any and all, including the corner bartender.)

Some gravitate to small firms to avoid politics. Forget it. The only place to avoid politics is in a cabin, by yourself, with no electricity, somewhere deep in the Yukon. Small companies are usually less “bureaucratic”—for example, there’s a lot less paper shuffling. But all organizations with more than one employee are political. And all companies with three or more employees have cliques! (Some decisions will go two against one. And Ms. or Mr. One will at times feel as “victimized” by the other two as the big-company operations chief who feels “the accountants are ganging up on me to score political points in front of the boss.”)

Is the upshot of all “politics” bland solutions? Lowest common denominator thinking? Hapless compromise of values? Perpetual inaction?

Yes, partially. No successful chief (or worthy friend or contributing family member) is unsullied by politics. The effective human is the compromised human. In his book Leadership, historian James MacGregor Burns discussed “transactional leadership” and “transforming leadership.” The latter, Burns writes, was practiced by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; they moved heaven and earth, almost literally. Yet these most inspiring of leaders spent most of their time on transactional affairs — the nitty-gritty of dealing with followers and, especially, one’s inner circle, minding bruised egos, meeting, talking, meeting, then talking and meeting some more.

Almost all effective leaders (government, business, the arts) love politics and even enjoy the intrigues. They delight in the journey itself. They invest heavily in relationships (to an extent that amazes bystanders), and are expert in reading eye shifts, toe taps and a hundred other nuances of body language. Indeed, they may bend too far in the breeze and compromise the essence of their dream. They end up drifting further and further away from any meritorious goal. (Washington’s leaders, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, seem to be in such an idle drift these days—though it reportedly felt that way in John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s time, too.) On the other hand, without the constant bending, twisting, tacking, jibing, there is no chance—none whatsoever—of accomplishing anything of significance.

To hate “politics” is to eschew most forms of achievement in the end. There’s nothing wrong with leading the un-political life of the hermit. Just don’t be surprised when you fail to win a spot on the Forbes magazine list of 400 wealthiest Americans, merit a footnote in the history books—or have many people attend your funeral.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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