Organizational Politics

Editors choice

Written by Eric Gilbertson  |  

eric-gilbertsonMention the word “politics” in polite company and the reaction is usually something like “yuck.” Apparently some people who aspire to high public office have given even the notion of politics a bad name.

A mention of “office politics” or “organizational politics” elicits the same response. Those terms tend to be associated with ruthless ambition, vicious back-stabbing and fulsome brown-nosing, Machiavellian conspiracies – not congenial habits or behaviors that nice people generally admire or seek in friends or colleagues.

Yet in reality every human organization – from governments to large and small businesses to educational or cultural institutions to . . . well . . . even to a marriage – is a political entity. Millennia ago Aristotle observed that “Man is by nature a political animal;” and little if anything has changed about the human conditions since. Politics was and is still at the core of every human organization.

But this isn’t necessarily or inevitably a bad thing – in fact, it’s often a very good thing. Politics is, at its best, the art and science of bringing people together to accomplish things they cannot accomplish alone. Bismarck called politics “the art of the possible.”

Politics is how we get along and work together, and political skills are necessary to lead any human organization – any government, any business, any school, any church or any family.

People, whether employees in a businesses or citizens in a democracy or members in a club or church or family, tend not to be passively obedient followers. They almost always have their own ideas and their own agendas. And leading them almost always requires skillful persuasion – not threats or bribes or deceptions or false promises, but rather a compelling encouragement to subordinate personal or parochial interests to some larger goal.

And that’s the difference between good politics and, well, yucky politics – the difference between tawdry self- aggrandizement and honorable leadership for worthy purposes.

Dwight Eisenhower somehow persuaded an eclectic collection of extraordinarily egotistical military generals – Patton, Montgomery, Bradley, others – to accept smaller roles in the larger strategy of invading the European mainland, and then to collaborate in the march to Berlin. He concluded that “Leadership is the art of getting someone to do something you want because he wants to do it.”

He was sensitive to the competing needs of their respective egos; he needed all their best thinking and best efforts for the campaign to succeed; and he understood that there were limits to the power he could exercise by simply ordering them to do what needed to be done. And so he persuaded them – with logic, with patience and persistence, with exquisite timing, with an appeal to their sense of duty – in an exercise of masterful political leadership.

That’s political leadership at its best. It’s not a bad model for those seeking to lead governments and corporations and institutions and families as well. And it’s really not at all yucky.

Eric R. Gilbertson is Saginaw Valley State University’s third president, serving from 1989 to 2014. He is also SVSU’s longes-serving president and is credited with across-the-board growth at the university in areas including academic programs,‌ enrollment, fundraising and physical size.


This article has been reprinted, with permission, from The Great Lakes Magazine


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