Great leaders can be authentic and political

Two leadership styles. Two value systems. Never the two shall meet? A recent Harvard Business article, Great Leaders Embrace Office Politics, presented the proposition that playing “politics” rather than hard work is the key to getting ahead. It sparked plenty of lively commentary, much of it critical of the premise.

Here is my take: authenticity and political skills are not mutually exclusive.

As you know, I am not a sit-on-the-fence kind of person! In this instance, I believe both of these competencies are absolutely necessary in the workplace – and can happen at the same time. Great leaders can be guided by strong principles and possess palatable political skills. While authenticity has been described as the gold standard of leadership, where does politics fit in?

Don’t confuse politics with manipulation

For many would-be career builders, being a “political person” can feel uncomfortable. Of course it does. “Office politics” has terrible connotations – backstabbing, confrontation, self-promotion, and so on. On the other hand, being an authentic leader that sticks by a belief system and makes value-based decisions in the workplace calls for high-fives all-around.

Let’s connect the two

Great leaders must deliver results, in an ethical way, and have the gift of persuasion, too. Persuasion doesn’t equal manipulation. It is about communicating, networking, and strategically managing your career. Being self-aware and adapting effectively to different, often demanding situations, is what differentiates the would-be and will-be leaders.

Being political and authentic – how it works

Leadership is hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. While being authentic and political may appear to be at odds on the surface – emotional intelligence versus strategy – the two can co-exist. Many successful leaders have climbed the ranks by managing up and earned respect by supporting, recognising and genuinely engaging with the people around them.

It is not about “winning” at office politics. I would argue there are no winners in leadership unless there is a mix of authenticity and political skills at play. Why? Because together, they push us out of our little comfort zones – and that’s where we learn, growth and get better at what we do. Great leaders can curate thriving work cultures by being authentic and political.

What do you think? Are political skills or principle more important?

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