As the U.S. Congress is wracked by the Foley scandal, politicians are busy playing Political Jeopardy, where political points are won by asking, “Who knew what, and when did they know it?” I long disdained politics for its dirty games and unquenchable thirst for scapegoats, yet after recent experiences I have come to appreciate the importance of political intelligence.
In my eagerness to avoid politics at all cost, this summer I interned at a small startup company. I assumed office politics were like bureaucracy-the unfortunate and unintended consequence of becoming a large, successful corporation. Instead, I discovered a valuable lesson: You can run, but you can never hide from politics. I suppose the only difference in the politics of a small company as compared to a large one is that the political maneuvering is more transparent when all the actors are known. Any time three or more people organize themselves into a formal or informal power structure, they create a power dynamic; thus, organizational politics is born. Some married couples might even argue that it only takes two people for politics to exist. Politics is a fact of life, and the ostrich approach simply does not work. The CEO of the company I worked with over the summer told me I was a terrible politician, and that if I ever wanted to succeed in this world, I would need to find a mentor who could teach me how to play the political game.
Early on in LEAD, we were introduced to the concept of emotional intelligence. I posit that political intelligence is just as important. There is no class at HBS to prepare you for office politics, but we all need to be well versed in it to succeed. Even as an entrepreneur or CEO, you need to understand the politics of your board of directors and the people who report to you. I am not suggesting that we ever use dirty tricks like backstabbing or rumor bruiting, or that we engage in petty power struggles. Rather, we should learn political techniques as we would study a martial art, for self-defense. Assessing power dynamics, defusing tensions and jealousies, and persuading others are necessary ingredients for effective management and a natural outgrowth of political intelligence.