Be a PAL
Political astuteness and Niccolo Machiavelli, the person whose name is most frequently associated with it, have undeservedly poor reputations. Leaders (at least the ones who don’t acquire their positions by genetics or accident) should know that politics and power go with the territory. "Whatever else organizations may be …, they are political structures. This means that organizations operate by distributing authority and setting a stage for the exercise of power." 1 Power is essentially the ability to influence people to do what they wouldn’t otherwise, for the benefit of the power-wielder’s goals. A leader who cannot change the direction of people’s behaviour is not much more than a figure at the head of a crowd – pushed in the direction it takes. One can be a manager (of sorts), a preacher and even a prophet(ess) without much political 'nous' or mastering the levers of power but, in a leader, such incapacities are an immediate shortcut to impotence if not disaster.
Being a PAL is even more important in modern commercial organizations where "…responsibility and authority don’t always coincide. Getting things done under circumstances where you lack direct line authority requires influence and political skills – a knowledge of organizational dynamics – not just technical skills and knowledge." 2
I hope this introduction has mitigated, to some extent, the distaste for political skills that HR professionals profess. As practitioners, anyway, their skills are as good as the best! Let us turn then to some key steps to becoming a PAL before proceeding to the strategies a PAL can adopt and, finally, to the self-imposed restraints while doing so. To keep it all in the family, we can call these the MAA who nurtures PALs, the BAAP who emboldens their actions and the BETI who demands they stay within morally acceptable limits.
Mentors, Aptitudes & Associates (MAA)
The apprenticeship to become a PAL has three components. While they are listed in decreasing order of importance, the lack of any one can put paid to any hope of PALhood.
Mentoring is as essential to becoming a potent PAL as a mother is to being born. In fact, I do not know of a single successful PAL who hasn’t had a powerful and positively predisposed mentor. Of course, this is not so obvious when pole-position PALs recount their apprenticeship days and achievements. Debt write-offs are not the sole preserve of drought-stricken farmers in election years! A PAL-in-the-making can gain enormously from a mentor. There is no substitute for observing, at close hand, a proven PAL in action. No column, book or course can take the place of watching and questioning a master-artist at work. Even more important, perhaps, is the catapulting career-start the PAL mentor can provide. Once again, I know of no one who breasted the final tape without getting one or more such lap starts from mentors. Lastly, when the PAL apprentice starts making mistakes, as s/he must after being pushed into role-shoes several sizes too large, it is the mentor’s protective umbrella that prevents the budding PAL from getting knifed by jealous competitors or appraisal systems that can chop non-mentored mortals to mince. With all of this debt, it is sad that each successfully developed PAL must cut that 'mentilical' chord as soon as s/he has wings or once the mentor’s star is in the decline. It is part of the Faustian Triad to which a successful PAL must subscribe and I have elaborated on containing the consequential moral damage to the PAL-in-grooming in an earlier column. 3
Apart from mentor distancing, the aforementioned column deals with two other aptitudes a PAL must hone: the toughness to retaliate against injuries and visible confidence that verges on self-deception. The nuances of both have been treated at sufficient length in that column so as not to bear repetition here. Let me touch on two other requirements for becoming a PAL. Emotional Intelligence is an acquirable and irreplaceable part of a PAL’s toolkit. Its limitations have been covered in a previous column 4 and there are plenty of how-to books and courses for aiding its acquisition. Lastly, we have ambition, which is a necessary energy-source for all the other aptitudes. There are three Ds that can help in allaying the panic that grips people when they see naked ambition. Dissimulation is the first and easiest of these. Diversion of the ambitious impulse to some larger corporate purpose or social cause is another way to reduce the distaste personal goal-focus causes. A third D is to Distribute the action and fruits arising from ambition among several others, so that it is not seen to be concentrated on a single individual and occasion too much Brutus-ish worry or Cassius-ish envy.
The last part of PAL preparation is the identification and close binding of allies early on in one’s career (long before they can become threats). Each of these associates need not be a budding power player. Several could just be purveyors of vital information, gateways to the ears of the powerful or trusted mediators with other coalitions. Despite being lower in the PALling order, they are no less vital to ensuring the ascendance of PALs, while their contentment with lower spoil-share makes it possible to carry them long after the narrowing power pyramid causes other PAL associates to drop away or become threats themselves.
Bold Attacks, Alliances & Perfidy (BAAP)
After the arduous apprenticeship necessary to become a PAL, it would be pointless to remain passive without ever seeing action. Moreover, it’s not as if one can opt out of the political hurly burly once one is in the upper echelons of the corporate world. One may use PAL qualities only for just causes (see last section) but having a reputation for abjuring all pugnacity and retaliation would be as helpful as a nation forgoing military options while its neighbours are armed and ready to attack. Heraclitus wrote: "War is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free." To remain free (as a nation or as a corporate executive), at certain times, a struggle is unavoidable. In this section we shall examine three strategic choices available to a PAL when faced with a rival it has not proved possible to convert to the larger organizational purpose, co-opt for limited common goals or pacify through minimal self-abnegation.
While I have seen each one of these strategies used in my personal corporate experience and from inside-stories told by trusted friends, several protagonists have had even longer lifespans than mine and bygones are best left undisturbed. More recent stories come from consulting clients where again, for obvious reasons, my gab can’t blab. As so often, I avoid revealing corporate skeletons by using names and examples from military history.
Before describing the Alexandrine, Aurangzebic and Clivean battle strategies available to a PAL, let me preempt some questions about this scheme of classification. Are these the only strategic choices a PAL can exercise? Probably not but they do appear to me the most important for a PAL operating within the confines of a corporate Kurukshetra. Are the episodes that I use the most memorable moments in the careers of generals whose names they carry? Not necessarily. These episodes have only been chosen because they illustrate the strategy in question well. And lastly, is it fair to expect the genius and authority available to these exemplar kings and generals to be available to a corporate PAL? The simplest counter is that the goals of these models (winning empires against huge odds) were similarly grander than those we encounter in companies. Moreover, the corporate PAL’s task is hugely simplified by the audience s/he has to satisfy to win. While these military commanders had to view Tyche (the goddess of chance) through the fog of war and satisfy her changing caprices, PALs in companies merely need to convince the nearest power point to which s/he and the rival report and who will decide who is victor. Matters are slightly complicated when the rival is one’s boss or CEO but not by much. At most it means appeal to key members of the global HQ, Board or promoters, all of whom are finite in number and predictable in preference. Now on to the choices themselves.
It was 5 November, 333 BCE. Alexander’s smaller force was pitted against the far larger army fielded by Darius at Issus. "Desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued … Alexander then shifted his cavalry to strike … the Royal Bodyguards in an effort to kill or capture Darius. Alexander was wounded in the thigh during the fighting… [T]he horses on Darius III’s chariot suddenly reared and bolted. Darius managed to control them but, in danger of capture, shifted to a smaller chariot and fled the field." 5 What characterizes the Alexandrine strategy is a direct blow at the chief opponent, regardless of personal risk. It requires great nerve and the willingness to risk all in the effort. There is rarely a Plan B that works once you are dead. In fact, even before the battle, Alexander had closed his options for retreat once he "… took the momentous decision of disbanding his fleet… He also seems to have profoundly distrusted his Greek allies, so much so that he was prepared to risk his entire campaign rather than entrust its safety to a Greek fleet." 6 Thus, there is little need or room for allies with this gameplan. The next strategy is entirely different in this respect.
Aurangzeb knew he needed a confederate in the looming succession battle against his elder brother, Dara Shukoh. An ally who would bear the brunt of the fighting and could later be disposed of, if necessary. "In order to coax his youngest brother…, Aurangzeb made a promise that he likely never intended to keep: Aurangzeb vowed that, upon defeating Dara Shukoh and Shah Shuja, he would cede control of the north and northwest portions of the Mughal kingdom to Murad… The ruse worked. Murad marched out of Gujarat, and his forces, combined with those of Aurangzeb, overpowered the imperial army in April 1658… The brothers next moved north toward Delhi, seeking victory in the heart of the Mughal Empire… The ensuing clash… proved the decisive moment in determining the Mughal succession crisis. [At its end, fearing] for his life, Dara dismounted and fled the battlefield on horseback… In the following few weeks tensions surfaced in the alliance between Aurangzeb and Murad… Aurangzeb decided that Murad had outlived his usefulness… Murad was arrested by Aurangzeb’s soldiers and thrown in chains. Aurangzeb wasted no time in absorbing his younger brother’s army…" 7 While defenestrating allies is not an essential part of an Aurenzebic strategy, it is neither rare nor strenuously avoided. The strategy as a whole is far less risky and, hence, much more common in international relations (and in corporate affairs) than the Alexandrine. Great Britain maintained its dominant position in Europe as well as in India for decades running into centuries using a Balance of Power version of the Aurenzebic approach.
Naming the third strategy Clivean, deprives Mir Jaffar and the Seths of the credit due to them for initiating the episode which culminated in Siraj ud-Daula’s defeat at Plassey. "The bankers and merchants of Bengal who sustained Siraj ud-Daula’s regime had finally turned against him and united with the disaffected parts of his own military; now they sought to bring in the mercenary troops of the East India Company to help depose him…. Before long, Mir Jafar and the Jagat Seths had significantly raised their offer, and were now promising the participants … the entire revenue of Bengal [along with other inducements] for their help in overthrowing Siraj." 8 The true story adds a secondary lesson for corporate leaders: not to be unfair in assessing subordinates or high-handed in dealing with them. And a tertiary one: never to be rude to bankers! Clearly, however, the eagerness to enter into perfidious deals to undermine an enemy was sufficiently part of Robert Clive’s repertoire to permit us to name this strategy after him. Enticing subordinates and thereby creating divisiveness in rival ranks is only one tool of Clivean strategy which can range from planting disinformation to differential negative treatment for supporters of rivals and doing the opposite for one’s own.
Basic Ethics, Trust & Integrity (BETI)
Those who found the descriptions given above to be uncomfortably amoral (if not positively immoral) will be reassured to find that there is a set of circumstances that obviate the need for PAL preparation. Politics is at a relatively low ebb in organizations that are:
Governed by systems and processes – especially in decisions relating to rewards, punishments and progression – rather than by individual whim.
Overseen by a CEO whose ears are close to the ground and relatively immune to poisoning or flattery.
Equipped with robust and easily accessible processes for appeal and redress.
Unfortunately, this combination is less common than one might hope, at least over long periods. Even while the aseptic combination is in place, it demands at least political awareness among leaders, if for no other reason than to know when the salubrious situation is over. Moreover, once that happens, it is too late to scramble around acquiring and practicing the PAL palette.
Since one cannot count on the organization to make our use of these morally troubling tools unnecessary, we must evolve our own checks to wield them as much in alignment with 'dharmic' duty as possible. Thus, if MAA dealt with preparation and BAAP with battle strategies, let BETI place the restraints essential to rein in the bellicosity of a PAL (I know my daughter does!).
Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
O Duty! if that name thou love
Who art a light to guide, a rod
To check the erring, and reprove; 9
In our context a PAL’s duty imposes three checks to the unrestrained use of political capabilities within the organization. The table below explains these:
Check Unacceptable Borderline Acceptable
1. Purpose Self-aggrandization Function / Unit benefit Corporate purpose
2. Precipitation Conquest / terror Preemptive defence Retaliation after attack
3. Precision Much collateral hurt Target proximates hurt Surgical strike
Obviously, the borderline domains require the most thought and soul-searching before political expedients are deployed. Perhaps the best advice I can give to people raring to use their PAL muscles is the one I received from my mother when I first began flexing my teen triceps:
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant. 10
1.Abraham Zaleznik, Power and Politics in Organizational Life, Harvard Business Review, May 1970.
2. Jeffery Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don't, Harper Business, 2010.
3. Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 451-457, AuthorsUpfront, 2023..
4. Visty Banaji, Old MacHR has a farm(ula), E-I - E-I - O!, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 207-214, AuthorsUpfront, 2023..
5. Spencer C. Tucker, Wars That Changed History: 50 of the World's Greatest Conflicts, ABC-CLIO, 2015.
6. Spencer C. Tucker, Wars That Changed History: 50 of the World's Greatest Conflicts, ABC-CLIO, 2015.
7. Audrey Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King, Stanford University Press, 2017.
8. William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
9. William Wordsworth, Ode to Duty, 1807.