Organizational Savvy – Is it Political Manipulation or Good Leadership Practice?

By Linda Bodnar, Ph.D., PCC

So often, it is “reframing” or “mindset shifts” that allow us to reach the growth we want to achieve in our leadership development. One clear example comes from a recent coaching engagement with a high potential leader who had moved from a smaller organization to a highly matrixed, complex organization with a highly collaborative culture.

She was struggling with the politics that she felt she was fighting on a daily basis. She was very excited with the work she and her team were doing and the impact they could have, but was highly uncomfortable with the idea that she had to play the political game, as she saw it, in order to succeed in this new company.

In addition to doing some stakeholder mapping and identifying the nature and strength of those relationships, we pulled some concepts and tools from an oldie but goodie book recommended by one of my coaching colleagues called “Political Savvy: Systematic Approaches to Leadership Behind the Scenes” by Joel R. DeLuca. What a find this was for this purpose! Here are some of the aha’s and mindset shifts that resonated with my coaching client and allowed her to re-examine her assumptions and reframe her thinking from having to “play the political game” to “using healthy and effective organizational savvy”:

• The more positively you view politics, the more you can effectively lead in a way that matches your values. For example, if you view politics negatively, you are more likely to manipulate, be defensive, be cynical, gossip, etc. If you view politics positively, you are more likely to be a play-maker, an impact player, a fan/encourager, etc.
• Informal influence plays a key part in shaping the decision-making process. If a leader focuses on ethical influence, where others know what s/he is trying to influence them about and why, then s/he is being effectively savvy rather than unethically manipulative.
• What separates Machiavellian leaders from savvy leaders is their intentions, behaviors, and results. A Machiavellian leader manipulates, creates losers, is a lone wolf, has hidden agendas, takes credit, etc. An organizationally savvy leader influences, creates winner, is a team player, has open agendas, is a strategist, spreads credit, etc.
• Combining positive self-interest with positive organizational interest results in functional politics, while other combinations result in dysfunctional, sacrificial, or self-destructive actions.

DeLuca’s definition of political savvy is “Ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about.” It seems pretty hard to argue against that!

It is now a year later and this leader has integrated successfully into the organization and has gotten visibility with and support from senior leadership. Even more importantly, perhaps, she is happy, thriving, and less stressed! She has turned her negative view of playing the politics into a positive and effective leadership practice that is in line with her strong values.

Some questions you might want to ponder include:

• What assumptions do you hold around the concept of political or organizational savvy that might warrant some re-examining?
• What mindset shifts around this might help you be a more impactful leader?