[October 31, 2017] Now that it’s scary Halloween1, it would be appropriate to take on the frightening topic of politics influencing organizations. A question often asked is whether leaders should allow politics to influence their organization’s mission and values. It’s a question often addressed at the most senior levels in nearly every organization. Those answers rarely concur but most do agree that it is best to avoid politics and not let it subvert their organization.
“In politics stupidity is not a handicap.” – Napoléon Bonaparte, French statesman and military leader
Reasons to avoid politics are many. In business it may cost you money and goodwill of customers. Leaders who have allowed politics to influence their organizations have seen the loss of not just their profits but also their credibilty. Some recent examples include the controversies at the sport’s channel ESPN2 and in the National Football League.3
When people see politics influencing an organization, there is the belief that those in senior leadership positions are self-serving, immature, undisciplined, or are in some ideological echo chamber that leads to perverse decisions. In other words, any organization that would allow itself to be colored by politics may be doing the same the elsewhere, unseen, and thus are undeserving of the trust and confidence necessary to accomplish their mission and uphold their values.
Politics can be both divisive and destructive. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, “never discuss politics at work.” But it goes beyond any one individual. In the U.S. military, like most Western militaries, politics has been historically pushed aside to ensure greater professionalism in the leadership corps.4 Politics were long ago rejected by senior military personnel because they learned the hard way that promotions should only be based on merit.
“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” – George Orwell, English novelist, journalist, and critic
Some have argued5 that some companies cannot avoid being pulled into the political arena; see efforts at General Motors, Disney Co., and Uber Technologies Inc. which have been targeted for boycotts from both sides of the political spectrum. One public relations person said that people will call you out if you speak up or if you don’t speak up.
There are many risks that require a sturdy hand of a seasoned, intelligent senior leader to navigate those choppy waters. The advice should be clear, it is better for everyone concerned for leaders to avoid mixing politics with their organizations.
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- Halloween (or All Hallow’s Eve) is an annual holiday in the United States with roots in age-old European traditions. See the History Channel for a good description of this holiday: http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween
- Politically appointed military generals have been responsible for some of the greatest defeats of armies in written history.