Politics Is Not Optional: The Case of the Weakened Boss

The three biggest mistakes I’ve made as an executive coach in the past decade have one thing in common: organizational politics. In each case, I failed to sufficiently prepare the leaders I was coaching for power moves at senior levels that could—and did—affect them.

Here’s the thing. Few people would call me naive. I’m biologically wired to see what could go wrong and warn people about it. I’m also fascinated by the darkest guides to power and influence (e.g. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power). However, with these three leaders, I missed key dynamics to which they were also blind, and it ended up costing them.

In this post, I share one of those stories. My intent is two-fold: first, to demonstrate that in organizations politics is not optional; and, second, to illustrate the level of acumen required to navigate politics skillfully.

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Case 1: The Weakened Boss

Linda was a highly successful senior manager with an amazing network at her company. When I met her, she had recently been brought onto a senior team in order to introduce a new business model, one more suited to the radically new market dynamics. Many of her colleagues were not enthusiastic about this business model. Some, in fact, were bitterly opposed to it. They had earned their stripes and had success in the prior business model. What did this new person think she was doing trying to change things?

Fortunately, Linda was aware of these political dynamics and open to my guidance. We worked on shifting her relationships with her peers by having new conversations with them. Instead of pushing or judging them, her practice was to get curious about their concerns and perspectives, ask questions, slow down, and listen. Over a period of months, this worked fairly well. Linda’s colleagues appreciated her new approach, particularly her sincere intention to put herself in their shoes. As a result, although Linda’s task of shifting the team’s business model was still challenging, there now was some light at the end of the tunnel. To use terms I introduced in Practice Greatness, a few key relationships shifted from Negative to Neutral/Respectful. Not an amazing outcome, but a step in the right direction.

This was a good example of tuning into political dynamics. Linda and I were neither naive nor cynical. Instead, we looked soberly and realistically at the people around her—particularly their interests and concerns—and assessed what it would take to make things better.

Unfortunately, I missed a different political dynamic. This related to her boss, Sam. Like Linda, Sam was well-respected at senior levels of the company. Indeed, he was often called on to fix big messy problems—and appeared to enjoy this. He also seemed to have a good idea of how to succeed politically—specifically, which mistakes were “fireable offenses” and which were not. On the other hand, my own first impression of him was relatively negative. He was late to our first meeting, seemed preoccupied with his thoughts, and couldn’t stop talking. I remember feeling frustrated by the conversation and his lack of presence. In my gut, I sensed that this was not a very skilled leader. Unfortunately, I did not ask the next logical question: what does his lack of executive presence suggest about his political power in the company? In fact, the question never occurred to me. I trusted what I had heard about his reputational power more than I trusted my own experience of him in the moment.

Shortly after I finished my engagement with Linda, Sam left his role. Or, to put it more accurately, he was forced out. Why? Because his reputational power in the company was much less than I had assumed.

Once Sam was gone, Linda realized how vulnerable she was to the same thing happening to her. Indeed, when her new boss was hired, she decided to cast out the “old guard.” Even though Linda was no fan of the status quo, she was placed in the same category as her peers. She lost her job. Not only that, but she was tainted politically at her division’s highest levels by her association with Sam. Executives who ordinarily would have been happy to have Linda on their team passed her over. It was enormously frustrating. Although she ended up getting another job in the company, it took many months, sapped a lot of her energy, and evoked a great deal of shame.

I did not learn about these events until several months later. Hearing her describe them was painful for me. Not just because of the impact on her life and family, but because I could have helped prevent this. So after acknowledging the difficult experience she had been through, I apologized for not serving her as well as I could have.

In retrospect, here are five things I would do differently the next time:

  1. Trust my gut. After sensing Sam’s weakness as a leader, ask the next logical question: what might this mean for his political power in the company? Is it possible that he is more vulnerable than I’ve been led to believe?
  2. Raise the topic with Linda. Introduce my curiosity about Sam’s true political power and ask Linda to share her thoughts more fully. If necessary, encourage Linda to ask other trusted sources in the company for their take. This would allow us to form a more grounded assessment of Sam’s, and therefore Linda’s, risk of losing his job.
  3. Explore different scenarios. Identify two to three different future scenarios and explore what Linda would do in each. One of these scenarios would be Sam losing his job. How might this impact Linda and the rest of the team?
  4. Discuss Linda’s overall career. Expand beyond our agreed focus—how to succeed in her current job—and consider what options Linda would have in each of the alternative scenarios, including the scenario of Sam losing his job. What possibilities would exist for Linda’s career in each scenario? (This thought exercise, which I’ve used with many leaders, is useful because it forced us to confront the reality that the future is plural.)
  5. Identify new actions to take. Given the possibilities explored in step four, what actions does this suggest Linda can take today? Strengthen alliances with pivotal executives? Differentiate herself politically from Sam—subtly, without appearing disloyal? Or perhaps line up a new job immediately, while her own reputational power is fully intact?

The ultimate lesson is this: politics is not optional. You cannot hide from it. You cannot wish it away. And there is little benefit to thinking you are “above it” or not wanting to “get your hands dirty.”

Here’s why: politics is ultimately about the interests and concerns of human beings. As long as there are human beings, there will be interests and concerns. And as long as there are interests and concerns, there will be politics.

I learned this lesson a long time ago. My experience with Linda reminded me there is always more to learn.