Why political skills matter
Now that this year’s primaries are over and general-election campaigns are revving up, it’s time to take a step back.
I know, it seems an odd thing to do when all the media attention is shifting to focus on the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and legislative contests that might affect who controls those chambers, but, for those of us who care about where the country’s headed, it’s also a time to look past the election and consider what our government and society as a whole need.
I can tell you, in four words: They need good politicians.
I don’t mean that politicians should get involved in non-profit organizations and the business world and arts and cultural organizations and hospitals, the media, law enforcement and so on. But, the same skills that good politicians develop are vital to the functioning of a diverse democratic society, in pretty much any organization that brings more than a handful of people together.
So, what am I talking about? Well, for starters, people with good political skills listen carefully, to all sorts of people, all the time. They do this in part to understand others’ points of view, but also because they’re searching for points of agreement and disagreement. Because paramount among the skills politicians bring to the table is the ability to forge consensus among people with different viewpoints and unite them behind a common goal. This is key to the success of a representative democracy, of course, but it’s also key to the success of your local parks department, say, or of your area’s Chamber of Commerce.
One of the interesting things about politicians is that they never control the environment in which they work. The results of the last election, the press of events, the news cycle, the demands of constituents and interest groups, all these and more shape pretty much every day in a politician’s life. So, they learn to seek the best possible solution to a problem given the constraints they face. In other words, they learn to be flexible while still making the system work. They learn how and when to compromise with others and with their own ideal solutions.
To be sure, I don’t want to say that politicians who lay out a standard they don’t want to abandon are entirely wrong-headed. The public dialogue needs people who can articulate a vision, even if it’s ideologically extreme, but they can’t be allowed to control or dominate the process; otherwise, we face gridlock. Government would be unable to work. And though there may be some businesses and organizations whose visionary leader is always right, I’m confident that most organizations are stronger when their leaders know how to take into account the knowledge and accrued wisdom of a wide variety of people.
One of the skills that good political and organizational leaders learn is how to aim at a larger goal than immediate self-interest — like winning the next election or advancing a career — while still remaining in a position to act. This might seem like an odd example for a confirmed small-d democrat to mention, but I’m thinking here of people like Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who died recently.
I was able to watch Gorbachev in action from time to time, and, although he presided over what amounted to a party dictatorship, he possessed fundamentally political skills, which he deployed to move his country — and others — toward peace and greater individual freedom.
Closer to home, one of the key skills the best politicians possess is the ability to focus on making the country work and to search for solutions to pressing challenges by setting aside the issues they can’t solve and digging in on solving the problems they can. They do this by working cooperatively instead of confrontationally; viewing their colleagues as colleagues, not as adversaries; taking the time to talk issues over and understand different points of view; prizing deliberation and dialogue as key parts of the process; and focusing above all on the national or community interest.
None of that is easy, and it takes time and experience to master. But that’s exactly what the best politicians — and the best organizational leaders — do regularly.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.