Besides the whims of fortune (and luck is an enormous force in the universe), what differentiates a successful person from an unsuccessful person? What defines a successful leader? According to Samuel Bacharach, co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group, successful leadership is defined by the ability to rally support for an idea and inspire others to collaborate with you and help bring that idea to fruition. Regardless of the quality of the initiatives that you’d like to advance, you cannot lead without possessing highly developed political skills. In the absence of good political skills, the most brilliant plans will die on the vine. A good agenda will never be realized and a legacy will be greatly diminished.
Bacharach says that the essence of political competence is the ability to understand what you can and cannot control. One must identify who will support the initiative, who will oppose and when the time will be right to go public and move forward. Those who possess political skills get things done because they take the time to think things through. The politically skilled will not naively or arrogantly move forward alone, but will instead win over the right people and build a coalition to take on the project. “Anticipating the obstacles your idea might face when you present it is a political skill that can help you get across the finish line”, says Bacharach. Politically skilled leaders will consult with a trusted ally or two to reality test their concept, create a list of potential allies and detractors, decide who to recruit for the launch team, calculate the best time to move forward and create a roll-out strategy.
Political skill means knowing how to map out the battlefield terrain, convince people to join your team and lead a coalition. The best ideas do not always win out, but the best launched ideas always have a good chance of seeing the light of day. The highly respected movers and shakers in life are yes, the luckiest, but also they have political skills.
Some are born with a highly developed political skill gene, but it is possible to improve your skill level. As noted above, taking the time to think through the arc of the initiative’s development and roll-out is a good place to start. Who is likely to support you? In whose interest might it be to see the project realized? What can you do to make potential allies see that it will benefit them to support the project? Which of your allies has enough power to make things happen and bring other high-ranking players to your team?
Now who are likely to be detractors, active or passive—who will feel threatened by a perceived (or actual) loss of power and influence if your plan is adopted? Who might be able to withhold resources (funding) or start a whisper campaign to undermine you? Can your team overcome these matters? Are there cultural, historical or other barriers that you might face?
Assembling your winning coalition is the next step. Work only with those whom you trust and respect and know that the feeling is mutual. Be certain to compile a list of compelling benefits that will help you sell the merits of your idea to those with the power to make it a reality.
You may want to approach the mapping of the political terrain as strategic planning and conduct a SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), to help you visualize the resources you hold, any gaps in your war chest, obstacles that you will likely face and opportunities that may strengthen your position along the way. Anticipate the arguments that will be made against you. Sell the benefits that will overcome those arguments and convince (powerful) allies to support your position. Collaborate with supporters to bring your initiative to life. Be an effective leader.