Wednesday 26 December 2007

Organisational Politics 101: Being Astute

Understanding the political context of mission/aid work:
What can we learn from Luke, Machiavelli, and friends?

"The children of this age
are more shrewd in relation to their own kind,
than are the children of light".
Luke 16:8

Power in organisations is of course normal and necessary. Organisational resiliency requires regimen--roles, rules, responsibilities. We all must adjust our preferences in order to work well together with others. That's life.
However, if in organisational life:
being politically-correct is an affront to your integrity,
then being politically-astute is necesary to assert your integrity.
Three years ago I was engrossed in a conversation with one of my closest friends. It was a cold winter's day, as we walked along the icy shores of a grey alpine lake. I was basically lamenting, with candid fervor, about why it seems so hard for good people to simply try to do good in an organisational context. "Why can organisational life be as bleak as this winter's day?", I mourned. After an hour into this somber discussion, my friend stopped, turned his gaze at me, and gently offered me two words of advice:

"Read Machiavelli."

My friend was referring to the 1512 work by Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. I had heard about this book--this disturbing treatise on power--but never read it. Machiavelli resolved to develop a reasoned argument for leadership that was practical and reality-based, and not simply idealistic or solely virtue-centered. Power could be "legitimately" unencumbered by ethical values. His work was arguably the beginning of the "realpolitiks" thinking that has impacted national and international governance for the last five centuries. Imbedded in his succinct admonition, my friend was telling me not to be naive, and to seriously upgrade my understanding of how the "real" organisational world works.

I took his advice. He was right. Chapter 15, reproduced below, was especially instructive. I have read and reread it many times (see especially the last sentence, in bold). It is less than one-page long. This short chapter is all about the use of virtue and vice by leaders. People in power, regardless of their religious convictions, can use both virtue and vice in order to preserve the state/organisation and in order to maintain their position in the state/organisation. In the worst case scenarios (apart from things like "murder", of course), people will "justifiably" resort to such "vices" as shaming, blaming, silencing, and scapegoating others, often with impunity, in order to protect the state/organisation/oneself. There is much to learn from Machiavelli. I see The Prince as an important tool for the "children of light", as cited above in Luke, to help them to think and act shrewdly in this age.

I am not advocating for vice. I am advocating for reality. I am advocating for understanding the reality of how both vice and virtue are used, often in ways that can be hard to distinguish, by those who are committed to maintain power structures and productivity in organisational contexts.
The Prince - by Niccolo Machiavelli
Chapter 15:
(written circa 1505, published 1515, translation by W. K. Marriot 1908;
reproduced from the Constitution Society, OR BLAMED

It remains now to see what ought to be the rules of conduct for a prince towards subject and friends. And as I know that many have written on this point, I expect I shall be considered presumptuous in mentioning it again, especially as in discussing it I shall depart from the methods of other people. But, it being my intention to write a thing which shall be useful to him who apprehends it, it appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.
Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly, using a Tuscan term (because an avaricious person in our language is still he who desires to possess by robbery, whilst we call one miserly who deprives himself too much of the use of his own); one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate; one faithless, another faithful; one effeminate and cowardly, another bold and brave; one affable, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one sincere, another cunning; one hard, another easy; one grave, another frivolous; one religious, another unbelieving, and the like. And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.
Reflection and Discussion
**Summarise Machiavelli's advice in one sentence.
**How do you see vice and virtue at work within your organisational context?
**In what ways do you think you are being politically-correct and being politically-astute?
**In what ways do you agree or disagree with my assertions?
**What other advice would you have given, besides reading Machiavelli?

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