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How leadership can rise above office politics

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This post is adapted from “The Office Politics Handbook: Winning the Game of Power and Politics at Work,” copyright 2013 by Jack Godwin, Ph.D. Godwin  is a political scientist and has been chief international officer at California State University, Sacramento, since 1999. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called “Clintonomics,” Godwin’s previous book, a “must read,” an assessment seconded by conservative publisher Christopher Ruddy. Godwin is a former Peace Corps volunteer and five-time Fulbright scholar.

Let’s consider the similarities and subtle differences between politics and leadership. First, what is politics? Politics is about power and any social situation, and any relationship becomes political the moment power is introduced.

Part of leading people — whether in life or in the office — means knowing when to use power and when not to use it. Knowing when not to use power will help you not politicize relationships. This can be very difficult if you are already powerful and you regularly receive empowering responses from people around you.

What is leadership? Leadership, like politics in general, is a social behavior requiring at least two participants (or members of a group). The group can be as small as two people, but if one member of the group has influence over another, then one is the leader and the other is the follower.

We need a precise definition because leadership is a relationship in which someone responds favorably and voluntarily to a leadership cue. Leadership isn’t something that you “the leader” have all the time in every situation. Leadership does not emanate from anyone’s place on the organizational chart, but from the follower’s response.

Leadership always depends on the cue-giving/cue-taking circle remaining unbroken. If people respond, there is leadership. If people don’t respond — favorably and voluntarily — there is no leadership. No exceptions.

The confusion between politics and leadership is understandable because both require social interaction. In certain political relationships, there is an expectation that a negative response (failure to complete the circle) comes with a punishment: Do as I say or you’re fired. This kind of power seeks to alter someone’s behavior via threat, intimidation, or coercion.

In other political relationships, there is an expectation that a positive response (again, success in completing the circle) will come with a reward: If you do as I ask, you’ll be promoted. This kind of power seeks to alter someone’s behavior by offering money, gifts, recognition, jobs, promotions, and such. When someone — an employee or potential employee — accepts these conditions, they are indeed completing the circle. Certainly this means it is possible to produce a positive response using threats of punishment and promises of reward. However, the ability to produce this kind of response does not make you a leader.

The point is that leadership isn’t something that any individual (even the president of the United States) has in every situation. To lead is to create a following. If no one is following, you’re not leading. Leadership depends more on finesse than power because leadership isn’t based on domination and submission.

A leader is the first link in the chain, but the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. If you only look upward — only for people who can promote you — but never look outward or downward, you will break the cue-giving/cue-taking circle essential to leadership. In the vocabulary of management, this means flattening the hierarchical structure, eliminating barriers between you and your colleagues, your clients, and anyone you want to lead.

Remember, there is there is very little leadership potential emanating from your place on the organizational chart. There is nothing in the bureaucratic authority of your office, your job title or your place in the hierarchy that guarantees leadership. Leadership is a relationship which depends on a continuing stream of interaction to ensure the leadership circle remains unbroken. For more on this, see “The Symbolic Uses of Politics” by Murray Edelman.

Leadership is like the “broken window” theory of police work, which involves fixing problems when they are small — repairing broken windows and cleaning up litter — to reduce vandalism. The idea is that one broken window sends a signal that nobody cares, and nobody will care about another one. Thus, if you stay on top of small problems and petty crimes, you can prevent a good neighborhood from decaying into a bad one.

Leadership works the same way. Leadership isn’t something you can keep in inventory. Leadership is a way of life, which involves daily practice and persistence. This kind of leadership is like a steady, gentle breeze, which does not blow very strong but blows consistently in the same direction. And this kind of leadership sends a signal that somebody does care about your neighborhood, your company, and your government.

What can you do? It is a matter of creating confidence, first by creating an expectation that you will do what you say, and then by doing it. Creating and fulfilling expectations reinforces your legitimacy, and increases the faith and trust people feel toward you. But most importantly, creating and fulfilling expectations helps ensure the circle of cue-giving and cue-taking remains unbroken.

In the workplace, it may be less risky never to make promises. This would certainly mean less disappointment and dissatisfaction. However, this would also mean less opportunity for leadership. So, make promises. Make them and keep them. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, and cross it off your list. This is how you increase the faith and trust people feel toward you. And this is perhaps the best, most cost-effective leadership habit you can acquire.