Monday, January 22, 2007

A Deadly Version of Office Politics

Read history and you'll find management.

Dictatorships in particular are filled with fascinating lessons of the use of raw and subtle power. For example, an important part of Joseph Stalin's strategy to become Lenin's primary successor involved a touch of office politics that any corporate Machiavelli would recognize.

It was assumed by many that when Vladimir Lenin died, his replacement would be the eloquent, charismatic, Leon Trotsky who could both discuss theory and command armies.

Trotsky was a far better speaker than the drab Stalin whose reputation was that of an able but invisible bureaucrat. In a debate there would have been no real contest. But while Trotsky was getting applause at the party events, Stalin was laboring as the personnel director of the Communist Party, granting and earning favors and placing his supporters into key positions. Trotsky was the rock star while Stalin was the workhorse and that may have triggered a sense of invulnerability and arrogance. The intellectual Trotsky had a habit of letting others know how smart he was. In contrast, Stalin took the time to listen to the rank and file. In doing so, he built bonds while learning about vulnerabilities.

A modern manager can read Stalin's speeches, looking past some of the deaden discussions of Soviet planning, and find a person who knew the foibles of organizations. In his report to the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1934, Stalin related a humorous story about a conversation he had with a party official:

I: How are you getting on with the sowing?

He: With the sowing, Comrade Stalin? We have mobilized ourselves. (Laughter.)

I: Well, and what then?

He: We have put the question squarely. (Laughter.)

I: And what next?

He: There is a turn, Comrade Stalin; soon there will be a turn. (Laughter.)

I: But still?

He: We can see an indication of some improvement. (Laughter.)

I: But still, how are you getting along with the sowing?

He: So far, Comrade Stalin, we have not made any headway with the sowing. (General laughter.)

Stalin then noted:

There you have the portrait of the windbag. They have mobilized themselves, they have put the question squarely, they have a turn and some improvement, but things remain as they were.

Stalin spoke of the organization as a symphony long before Peter Drucker made that comparision and many of his observations on management could have come out of a modern business bestseller. There is a chill, however, that comes with his words. A large portion of Stalin's audience wasn't around for the next party congress. They'd been purged by this lethal bureaucrat and, as for Trotsky, he eventually was murdered with an ice pick by one of Stalin's assassins while in exile in Mexico.

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