master the political chessboard

You say you don’t like politics at work….think again!

You see an opportunity to make a difference and have jumped into action. It seems that each step you take creates a widening arc of support and opposition. You know you have to deal with the opposition, but as you see it, playing politics is beneath you. Get over it. To reach your goals you need to master the political chessboard.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were all master politicians. People who govern in war and peace do politics. Leaders who change the game in business do politics. Scientists who win Nobel Prizes for their research do politics. Activists who lead the charge to improve community schools do politics. Even great artists who represent a new school do politics.

Sure politics can feel like kissing up, but what feels like kissing up to one person can feel like gaining the necessary power and influence to accomplish great things to the next. In the same sense, politics can be frustrating and infuriating. But what is frustrating and infuriating to one of us can feel like an exciting human puzzle to others.

Finally, politics may feel like changing what you stand for accordingly to the audience. Yet to a political master in business or government, it is not about changing what you stand for, it is about speaking to the issues and concerns of the audience.

A ‘master politician’ is someone who successfully gains power and influence, and who successfully accomplishes something that brings about a profound, irreversible change.

Just gaining power and influence is not enough to make you a master politician. Consider the number of presidents of the United States, company chief executives, coaches of professional or nationally ranked college sports teams, or even the chief of the local police departments that got to the top, but failed to leave a lasting legacy or irreversible change.

The ability to do so requires taking into account that, the closer you get to the top, the greater the competition is for power and resources. Thus, you need to not only embrace the political nature of all organizations, but also as noted historian James MacGreggor Burns said about FDR in accomplishing his New Deal, “move like a creative artist amongst the tangle of conflicting forces and confusing interests.”

What does it take to be a master politician? It involves knowing who you are, what you stand for, what your goals are, and how to handle yourself in the midst of conflicting agendas and shifting power grids on the corporate (enterprise) chessboard.

The fact is that trying to bring about change always creates competition, which in turn creates politics. The worst mistake you can make is to assume that you don’t have to be a politician or that politics don’t exist.

Becoming a Master Politician—Seven Key Guiding Principles

1. Realize style supersedes substance

Your manner often speaks louder than your message. Many political sages have suggested that Ronald Reagan was the most prominent president of our lifetime, because of his policies and programs. However, if you are like most Americans, you probably aren’t even sure what his policies and programs were. What people do remember is Reagan’s style. One of his greatest strengths was that he was incredibly affable and boundlessly optimistic. Reagan possessed firm convictions Americans could identify with and unerring political instincts. He took the presidency away from Carter by saying, “It is morning in America,” when Carter was sounding like a profit of doom and asking, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Ask yourself: are you likeable?

2. Stand for something that has broad appeal and addresses throbbing human needs and wants.

Master politicians not only have great style, but they also stand for something. Nelson Mandela stood for the end of the dreaded Apartheid and the liberation of blacks in South Africa, enduring twenty-five years in prison. His stand spoke to millions, turning the tide of popular opinion amongst both whites and blacks until he was set free from Robben Island prison, and in the process, freeing millions of other as well. He never took the opposition personally, even inviting his one-time jailors to his presidential inauguration. Ask yourself: are you taking a stand for something that meets the throbbing needs and wants of people?

3. Create a campaign that captures hearts and minds

So you want to be chief executive, or get your capital budget for your game changing ideas, or be a difference maker for your employees, customers, and constituents. First, you must understand that you will need to consciously and intentionally conduct a campaign to reach these goals and aspirations. Campaigns involve winning the hearts and minds of people. FDR engaged people in his 1936 election campaign, “I join with you…for the duration of this war to end the Depression and I promise you to put a chicken in every pot.” He was determined not just to influence public opinion, but also to dominate it, proclaiming in speech after speech the New Deal as a legitimate role of government. Ask yourself: what is in the hearts and minds of the people around you?

4. Before you map your strategy, map the political chessboard

To gain support for your campaign and diminish opposition, think about the different players on the political chessboard and how you need to strategically influence each individual or group. Consider: 1) inheritors of the status quo, 2) opposers who reject or seek another course, 3) partners who align and support, 4) coalition builders of like-minded and opposers, 5) splitters who lead factions, 6) passives who support the status quo by doing nothing, and 7) isolates who are alienated from the process. How must you speak to each people’s listening? Ask yourself: who are the people you most need to influence and how can you speak to their listening?

5. Do whatever it takes

The people that get to power and influence and make a difference practice management by Machiavelli. The following story makes the point. When JFK returned to Boston from is PT109 experiences in the Navy, he decided to run for Congress in the North End district, which was heavily Italian. He put together a great campaign relying on the many friends he had made in college and in the Navy. His campaign manager found out that there was someone running in the district whose name was Russo. Fearing he would win the entire Italian vote because of his name, his campaign manager found another Russo, and asked him to put his name on the ballot, thus splitting the Italian vote. The young JFK won the election by a large margin. The Machiavellian approach is often not spoken of, but don’t fool yourself, it is just as often done. Ask yourself: what can you learn from this?

6. When your support is tenuous and the opposition strong, wheel and deal to move your agenda forward one piece at a time

Master politicians succeed, gradually than dramatically. FDR who took a stand to end the Great Depression had great style and substance, as well as an exquisite sense of political timing. In his first hundred days in office when his support was tenuous, he engaged in transactional leadership “wheeling and dealing” with leaders in Congress to come up with some important reforms, holding back for the time being on those reforms that might represent a profound and irreversible change. When your power and influence is tenuous, be willing to ask, “If I do that for you, what will you do for me?” Ask yourself: what people or groups do you need to give something to in order to gain something from now?

7. Build coalitions of unlikely stakeholders to increase support, diminish opposition, and drive your political and business agenda through

FDR realized during his re-election campaign in 1936 that he would have to be more of a transformational leader and act more boldly to reach his goals and, in the process, redefine the Democratic Party. To accomplish this he set about building coalitions in far-flung quarters that would allow him to dramatically increase support and to diminish resistance. He brought together northern Democrats and conservative southern Democrats (now Republican types), labor and management, Populists and old guard Liberals in a sweeping electoral victory. This enabled him to enact in what is known as his “second hundred days,” a torrent of legislation amounting to an Economic Bill of Rights, and whose programs (like Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance) still exist today. Ask yourself: what like-minded stakeholders, as well as opposers, do you need to build a coalition with?

Good luck on your journey as you “move like a creative artist amongst the tangle of conflicting forces and confusing interests” and successfully accomplish something that brings about a profound, irreversible change! Robert

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