The Crystal Ball
First, I ask that you take out your crystal ball. What do you mean you don’t have a crystal ball? I thought that all leaders were expected to obtain, and maintain a crystal ball in good working order? Okay, even if you don’t own a crystal ball, think about the last time that you made a prediction that came true. Were you able to see how certain events might fit together in a way that others did not see? How did the situation actually unfold? Were you able to influence others and rescue the day, or did you sit back and watch the situation unfold precisely as you thought it might?
Enough questions – you can put your crystal ball back into your desk drawer until you need it for the next strategic planning cycle. Ever since I have been interested in leadership, I have read about the need for leaders (particularly senior leaders) to develop high-level, strategic visioning capabilities to direct their organizations to the right places. There is a fair amount of literature that addresses leadership vision, and the ability to effectively communicate that vision across the organization. Much of the literature suggests that a critical element of effective leadership lies in one’s ability to get her followers to see the same vision, and to take the right actions toward making that vision a reality.
What’s sometimes missing is a focus on the importance of influencing leadership peers, colleagues, and even your supervisor. This is precisely where the topic of leadership can take a quick turn to the left.
The Train Wreck is Coming
For many years I made future predictions as part of my annual planning and goal-setting process. I have gone so far as to write my predictions on a piece of paper, which I filed away until the next planning cycle (yes, I kept score). While I have not always been correct about all of my predictions, I have often surprised myself about how accurate I was about certain things. I have been told that my ability to synthesize meaning out of disparate and complex realities is one of my strengths.
The problem is that I have seen parts (sometimes significant parts) of the train wrecks that I predicted come true. I have predicted wrecks, communicated the possibility of the wrecks (early), have tried to influence other leaders to avoid the wrecks, but have still (in some cases) sat back and watched the train wrecks occur (usually in slow motion).
On one hand, I have been quite smug about my predictions and the reality that others did not believe me, trust me, or work with me to avoid it – it has occasionally led to the highly satisfactory conversation that ends with the phrase, “I told you so.” As if this somehow makes me feel smarter, or at least more perceptive than others. On the other hand, I’ve realized that this isn’t really evidence of my visioning capability as much as it is an indication of my own leadership failure. The failure to influence other leaders.
Leadership Requires Influence
Influence does not attach to a fancy title; this is especially true concerning your ability to influence others who have fancy titles, perhaps even fancier than yours. While many leaders rely on the power to influence direct reports through postional authority, or other extrinsic factors linked directly to their role (see Performance-Based Compensation), influencing those over whom you have no authority becomes more about knowing, and playing “the game.”
Yes, I am talking about organizational politics. You see, influencing leaders is more than setting and communicating vision; influence is more than having credibility; it is more than having knowledge; and, it is more than executing strategy in your areas of control. Influence is having the moxie to navigate the political landscape that exists in every organization, from your church, to your employer. It includes the ability to develop personal relationships, stroke the right egos, form alliances, and navigate the invisible undercurrents that force the flow of influence within the organization. You can be a great visionary, and a great communicator, but if you refuse, or do not know how to play the game, you are really nothing more than a pundit; you will lack any real influence.
Why HR Needs to Play Politics
I know that the concept of organizational politics makes many HR folks uncomfortable, so let me get this out of the way: HR leaders need to become politically effective. Unfortunately, many have categorically associated organizational politics with everything that is wrong and evil; after all, isn’t it HR’s role to remain neutral (see Time for HR Leaders to Put it In Gear to hear my rant about that one)? In case you missed it, my answer is a definitive NO.
Political games aimed at perpetuating discrimination, inequity, or immorality need to be stricken from our organizations and society at all costs. Period. But, even when we are successful on those fronts, politics will remain a driving force in our organizations. The question may then be how we leverage the political influences for the good of the organization, and its people (i.e. how do we become more influential). My working hypothesis is this: in order to be effective at influencing leaders and decision makers, one needs to effectively thrive in the political system. Vision is only effective as a leadership strength to the extent that one can truly influence the right people to lead by it.
What do you think?
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