‘Politics’ may be a dirty word but to succeed in leading change we must work politically. How?
In the wake of the recent election, we could be forgiven for wanting to run away from anything with political connotations. ‘Politics’ is often seen as a dirty word, but if you work in any organisational setting, large or small, then you are often working politically, whether you like it or not. And if we want to make progress on behalf of something we care about, then how we engage with others requires us to work politically.
It’s the water we swim in, and just like fish for us to survive and thrive, we need to be aware of the currents, the tides, who else is swimming around us, where food can be found, how to navigate around the big fish so we don’t get eaten, and we need to know how to work with the rest of the shoal to reach our destination.
We may have a fantasy that we are sole agents and we’re acting independently, but we’re always subject to the forces and pushes and pulls of the system we’re working in.
In a previous life, I managed a peer education organisation which informed people using drugs about harm minimisation principles. We were informing others but also advocating for a pragmatic harm minimisation approach to drug use. It was the mid ’90s, I was young(er) and fairly naively stepped into a very polarised political debate regarding drug use. It was very easy to get swept up with the ‘rightness’ of our position—”It just made sense!” —and we very quickly polarised ourselves and become predictable. I would attend meetings with police, politicians, social workers and councillors and quickly everyone’s position became predictable, including mine. We were all showing up with our respective areas of expertise yet we were also unconsciously reading off a previously written script which mostly rendered us unable to really hear anything else. For a while little progress was made, until crisis happened: someone died.
There’s nothing like a death to wake people up—and drug-related deaths at dance parties were a big wake-up call in the early ’90s. We quickly united around a shared purpose: to make sure that didn’t happen again. Of course, we all held different positions about what the response should be, but for once there was an openness to listen. We knew that each of us held some part of the solution—if only we could just get past our own agenda, even momentarily, to share it. I knew who my allies were, on this issue at least. The main challenge I had was engaging with those who (on the face of it) seemed to be most opposed to the idea of providing education and advice to people who chose not to say ‘No’ to drugs. So gradually I entered into a ‘partnership’ with the Head of the Drugs Squad, and we listened deeply to each other’s concerns, ideas and fears. We had to meet fairly covertly, in pubs, mainly! He couldn’t be seen coming into my organisation, as we could lose credibility—and vice-versa. Neither of us brought our conversations to our broader organisations until we’d found a way to make progress together. When that finally happened, I had immediate pushback from the young people I represented: I had ‘colluded with the enemy’—they felt betrayed. But they could also see the wisdom in the technical solution we found. It was a solution which required compromise but it was a solution.
The result of this work was ultimately policy change, and a change in legislation for people who were running events, dance parties and night clubs. The ‘safer dancing guidelines’ were picked up and passed by the local council and then later they became national law. And it only happened by us working together—police, medical people, security, event promoters, councillors and us— with a clear motivating purpose: to prevent more drug-related deaths.
I’m often reminded of that work in my 20s in the organisations I work with today. The need to work consciously across the political landscape is greater, the more senior we become, and the more complex and fast-changing the environment becomes.
But whatever the context— in business or finance, in government, in the not-for-profit sector,—leadership on behalf of something that matters always requires us to get beyond our own internal ‘tape-loop’, when we’re not really listening to anything other than the rightness of our own position. If we can understand on a deeper level what is actually going on, and give ourselves a range of interpretations other than, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” then we may just be able to move forward on some of our hardest issues.
Underneath the complaint, the shrill speech, the passionate defence, is often a desire for a ‘noble value’ to be heard. If I listen openly enough and enquire, I’ll hear something that I can agree is deeply noble—and yet still disagree. We’ve all been there, and I know once I can recognise that is what’s playing out , it moves me from argument to compassion and elicits a willingness to stay in it to do it differently.
This skill and awareness is what’s required to work politically—to work out what’s underneath the words, to speak to that value or fear of loss, to show we are willing to give something up ourselves. Yes, it’s often about individual loss but with a sense of what’s to be gained for us all.
Liz is the co-author of The Australian Leadership Paradox: What it takes to lead in the lucky country. Liz will be presenting on ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ at breakfast events in Sydney on Friday 20 September and in Brisbane on Thursday 26 September