The Merriman-Webster Dictionary defines “politics” as “the art or science of government.” A friend and mentor once explained to me, “Politics is simply who gets what and when they get it.”
My friend’s definition is much closer to what we find in an expanded definition on Wikipedia:
Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (a usually hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities.
I bring this up not to rehash the Presidential election but to consider politics as part of leadership. Politics is not in itself a bad thing. We usually think of politics as negative when we are on the losing side of a decision or find ourselves having to live with an unpopular decision. Most of us have been in that situation as some point.
Whether one is a pastor, a judicatory official, a not-for-profit CEO, or the leader of a committee or team, she or he should be able to be political. In other words, a leader must know how to work with people to achieve a desired result.
Although I am certainly not on expert on the process of politics, it seems clear that a leader must be able to do several things to be an effective politician and help determine “who gets what and when.”
First, the leader needs to know those he or she leads. This means knowing their needs, aspirations, values, and goals. To do this effectively, the leader must put aside his or her own presuppositions and goals, be a good listener, and develop rapport that is more than superficial. In doing this, the leader not only comes to understand what people want but their aspirations and dreams. The leader taps not only into the self-interest of people but their altruistic inclinations as well.
Second, the leader must understand how her or his goals line up with those of constituents or of those who will make the ultimate decision. Is there common ground? If not, is the leader willing to invest the time and energy to educate or persuade others to come around to the leader’s point of view? On the other hand, if the investment of time and energy to bring someone on board is too great, how flexible can the leader be in adapting to the situation?
Third, is the leader willing to learn and accept failure without bitterness and see this as a learning experience? Good leaders fail and learn from their failures. For example, Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 different publishers. Most successful elected leaders have lost at least one election. Part of being a good politician is knowing what to do with failure.
Fourth, the ultimate question for a leader, especially one who embraces a faith perspective, is, “Am I doing this for myself or for a greater good?” Sometimes we convince ourselves that a goal is good because it seems right to us when it is only self-serving. This is where the perspective of others—family, friends, and trusted advisors—can move us beyond our own desires to perceive the greater good.
Politics is about people. For leaders, people must be a primary concern.