The "Politics" of Business

For many the subject of politics in the workplace is considered off-limits. They say you can talk about anything else, just not politics and that other controversial one, religion. I fail to see why reasonable people cannot agree to disagree, but maybe that's just me. Nevertheless, I think it may surprise many CEOs and business professionals to know that they are surrounded by the science of politics everyday when they engage in business. The lessons that politics around the world teach us, are great lessons for business, and even better lessons for leadership in business.

Much was made of Alexis de Tocqueville's major piece Democracy in America. In the relative early period of the American Republic, de Tocqueville was a major foreign thinker who offered his commentary on what was then the American experiment, an experiment which infinitely changed the world forever. In democratic regimes, such as the United States, people consent to be governed, fulfilling the ideals of enlightenment thinker John Locke. Leaders in democratic regimes depend on an engaged citizenry to participate, shouldering some role in the governing responsibility. A colleague of mine is fond of saying that the role of the citizen is the most important role in a democratic system of government. I certainly agree. It is these individual freedoms and individual liberties, exercised by the citizen, which allow the democratic system of government to perpetuate itself.

In stark contrast, in many authoritarian systems of government, for instance in China, people are not able to participate freely. Individual freedoms and individual liberties are suppressed to put forth the ruling elites' vision for the country, which is often not a reflection of the peoples' will whom the elites govern. After all, in command-style governments, it is irrelevant what "the people" think. This style of government results in "temporary" stability for the ruling class. The term "temporary" is notably a relative term. Furthermore, authoritarian systems are doomed to either fall or reform; it is inevitable given what we know about human beings.

Thinking about both democratic and authoritarian regimes including the dire circumstances surrounding them throughout history, and even in the contemporary world, how do these ideas connect to business? The answer may be more obvious than you think. Seriously, take a minute and think about your workplace, your boss, and your company's corporate philosophy. Think about arguably the most salient concept first: how are you managed? Does your supervisor encourage you, delegate to you, and encourage you to grow personally and professionally? Is he or she a Douglas MacGregor Theory "Y" manager? Or, is your boss, often terse, controlling, even threatening, more in line with Macgregor's Theory "X" manager?

Over a career, it is probably inevitable to run into MacGregor's dichotomy of leadership, where there are two stark styles of leadership in a given business setting. The real question is, how long will employees stay in a situation where their boss adheres to the Theory "X" philosophy, aka the authoritarian regime? Invariably, I think most people would want the Theory "Y" environment, most people would want to be encouraged to grow, and to participate, and to be heard; most people want democratic regimes.

The purpose of this article was not to make a veiled endorsement of democratization as a goal of foreign policy, rather, it is to make the clear connection between the study of politics, and what that study teaches us about business, leadership, and, of course, about human nature. The Ancient Greek philosophers seemed to intuitively understand human beings. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville also understood human beings. Understanding their philosophies can be the key to understanding business because, people, are a company's, and a country's, greatest asset.