Business and Political Thinking

Business and Political Thinking

Op-Ed Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Dir. SMSBF

The title of this article may be a bit jarring: What does “political thinking” have to do with business? When it comes to leadership, political thinking has everything to do with business, because it is within the framework of political thinking that the business leader finds truth and the answers to dealing with uncertainty.

So as to establish a foundation for our thinking, let’s start with a few definitions. The first is the word politics. Merriam Webster’s definition for politics is, “the art or science of government”. To apply the term to business we need to understand what is meant by “govern”. Again, turning to Webster, govern is defined as “to exercise continuous sovereign authority over”.

Businesses large and small have some form of sovereign authority. In other words, to riff on the quote popularized by Harry Truman, the buck must stop somewhere. Whether the business is a large multinational, with a CEO and a complex governance structure, or just one person, there is a form of sovereign authority over the business – what the business does and does not do.

Now, let’s deal with the word thinking. It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While the statement is certainly harsh, because many of us do not think of ourselves as being philosophical, it is an undeniable reality of nature that as a rule, human beings are thinkers. Our central nervous systems are the most evolved of all mammalian life, and this reality foists upon us the necessity to think to survive. And whether we like it or not, each of us holds a “worldview”, or philosophy of life that affects and guides our decision making – the way we think. It falls upon the business leader, then, to think politically. In other words, to think about the art or science of the business’s governance.

In his seminal work, Good to Great, author Jim Collins covers two types of business leaders; he uses the analogy of the “Mirror and the Window” to describe the difference between the two.

According to Collins, there is a type of leader – the narcist – who, when things are going well, looks in the mirror and congratulates him or herself for being a great leader, a person whose overwhelming intelligence and skill is leading the business to new and great things. The same leader, when confronted with problems, looks out the window and blames everyone else for whatever failure may be at hand. The other type of leader does the opposite. When celebrating success, he or she looks out the window and congratulates the community of people who made the success possible, and when there’s failure, he starts the examination by first looking in the mirror and asking him or herself tough questions. Of course, this sort of behavior is not restricted to businesses; in fact, we see it all around us, just look to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and ask what sort of leader sits there.

The question at this point comes to how: How does the business leader engage in political thinking? The answer lies in Collins’ Mirror and Window, and for the effective business leader, this question is answered by first looking out the window.

The community of people within the business is the source to which the effective business leader first turns for political answers. Those who work daily to accomplish the mission of the business constitute an excellent resource for a better understanding of what it takes to be effective in governing the business. But before one looks out the window, the person must be prepared for what he or she will find, and to be prepared necessitates being vulnerable and humble; it means being willing to uncover the unexpected and to be open to uncertainty.

In the forward to Glenn Tinder’s, Political Thinking[i], author Steven M. DeLue of Miami University, Ohio considers the notion of “humane uncertainty”, which speaks to the tension that lies between a false sense of certainty; the reality that the walk of life is uncertain and the only way to get through life is through a humane consideration of what others think. DeLue writes, “After all, political thinking never promises that doubt and uncertainty will be erased from the human condition. As Tinder says, ‘to think is to be uncertain,’ and moreover the path to ‘wisdom lies in uncertainty.’” In other words, it is the narcist, the person so sure of him or herself, and thereby promises certainty, who is far more likely to fail. The good leader knows the path forward is uncertain, and navigating that path, in community and with others, is the best way to be effective.



[i] DeLue, S. M. (2004). Tinder’s Contribution to Political Thinking [Foreword]. In 1061095830 808795982 G. Tinder (Author), Political thinking: The perennial questions (p. Ix). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

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