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Being a pragmatic leader means being political

November 8, 2017
Borderless Leadership

With today’s focus on technical skills, quantitative, and analytic capacity, what differentiates one technologically smart entrepreneur from another? Or for that matter, one intrapreneur from another?

That defining quality is their capacity to actually move their ideas, gain support for those ideas, push those ideas, and implement those ideas. It’s their capacity to be politically competent and proactive. They need to be able to win people over and sustain forward movement to make sure that results are achieved. In today’s organizations with multiple businesses, cross-functional teams, complex authority structures, and turf paranoia, leaders cannot be dreamers. They have to show a pragmatic understanding of politics.

I am reminded of the story of a group of engineers in a Fortune 200 company, brilliant in their technical capacity, but lacking the core skills necessary to drive their good ideas ahead. These engineers bought into the notion of an objective meritocracy, thinking that good ideas will eventually rise to the surface in some semi-idealistic, survival-of-the-fittest manner. Ideas do not rise to the top. They are pushed to the top by pragmatic politicians who have been trained in certain core capacities. Pragmatic politicians understand that ideas must be supported.  They know that they need to mobilize support. They understand that no matter what the numbers say or what best practice dictates, resistance sometimes is not rational but impassioned. They know that more often than they would care to admit, objectivity is subjugated by paranoia.

Engaging in “politics” is sometimes dismissed as a soft skill, but gaining support is an art, involving the ability to justify an agenda, establish credibility, appreciate what the other party is looking for, and remaining politically astute–that is, being perpetually aware of opponents and challengers. We often think of the great figures in history as if they were simply driven by ideology and aspiration. When the behavior of these leaders is examined closely, we begin to appreciate that their core strength was in the tenacity of their politics and their capacity to be pragmatic and practical, knowing when to make adjustments, knowing whom they needed–and whom they didn’t need–on their side to get the buy in. Leaders often learn the lesson about the importance of politics the hard way

In 1985, Steve Jobs failed to convince Apple CEO John Sculley to drop the price and increase the advertising of the Macintosh Office, the second-generation Mac. When Jobs also failed to impress on Apple’s board that his idea was a good one, Jobs exited the organization. He was not able to build support for his ideas to promote his pet project, but instead he went full-steam-ahead, and losing potential support in the process.

When he came back to Apple in 1997, Jobs was a much more seasoned executive, and much less of a hothead, and took the time to hear all sides of a debate of a direction to go. While Jobs made the ultimate decision, he only did so with the advice, counsel, and support of his team. While Martin Luther King, Jr’s dreams, they were achieved because he had the core political skills to move his agenda ahead. He understood what Jobs failed to understand the first time around–that a good idea is not simply enough. Whether Jobs, King, or an entrepreneur moving an idea ahead, the simple political skills of pragmatic leadership can help them move their ideas ahead.

By Samuel Bacharach


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