Why leaders must play politics

Flickr user Victor1558

(MoneyWatch) Outlined below is a question -- how you answer it can determine your effectiveness as a leader.

Which of the following senior executives would you rather work for? Both are well paid and seasoned. Both are men of about the same age. Let's call one Aspirational, because that's his leadership style. He reaches for people's better sides, for the truth within them. He practices leadership-by-inspiration. He sits with the front-line employees of his company, who call him by his first name. He's a nice man, and he leads from the Good.

The second plays politics, and plays to win, so let's call him Political. If you ask him for a role model (which I have), it's someone like former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His ethos is that you rise by any means necessary, and only when you get to the top can you make things better.

This exec got to the top five years ago, and now finds the organization he leads only responds to fear, intimidation, and threats. So that's how he leads. He listens to the grapevine, always knowing who is making a political play or who might be undercutting him. He publicly embarrasses his managers in meetings, especially those he hears may be jockeying for advancement. His motto is justice first, compassion later. Didn't hit your numbers? You're out. And we'll wish you well on your way out the door.

So there's your choice. Would you rather work for Aspirational or Political? Without a doubt, I'd rather work for Political. The reason is simple: Aspirational is fired executive walking. It's only a matter of time before Political leader takes him out.

There's another reason I'd rather work for Political: He's the better leader. My co-author Steve Zaffron and I defined leadership as "making something happen that wasn't going to happen anyway" in our book "The Three Laws of Performance." Which person is better able to get things done? Without a doubt, it is Political. This kind of leader will weather economic downturns, survive acquisitions, and fend off hostile takeovers.

So what's the advice here?

First, if you are like Aspirational leader, learn the dark arts of power. My personal blog this week gives some details as to how to do that. Make someone like Political Leader your mentor in this regard.

Second, if you are more Political leader, learn the light arts of aspirations, values, noble causes, and vision. Read books about your inner self, the truth that lies within, and all that. Find something that trumps your need to achieve. Because unless you lead with a higher purpose in mind, you'll live longer than Aspirational but get taken out by someone even more Political than you are. Worst of all, you'll look back and wish you'd been just a little more like Aspirational.

The point is simple: You need to be both, all the time. Aspirational without Political is ineffective. Political without Aspirational is soulless. Put them together, and you've got the Holy Grail of leadership.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Victor1558

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.