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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 14 February 2014

The Maintenance of Morale in Politics

In politics, you hear a lot about tactics and strategy, communications and attack ads, ground wars and War Rooms.  What you don't hear a lot about is morale.

Politics is, in theory, a zero-sum game; you win power or you lost it.  Everything in between simply means the war isn't over yet.

And war is the appropriate terminology here.  Political operators are increasingly seeing themselves as generals in epic battles between good (whatever our side is) and evil (the other guys).  There can be no middle ground in these titanic contests and, as such, no focus wasted on anything that isn't growing the numbers.

Policy is designed to woo voters (or suppress support for other Parties) and entice donations, which is why Members get fundraising letters after each and every announcement.  

Attacks are the same - they focus on the bad of whatever is proposed by other Parties and seize on any gaffes, portraying them as The Worst People In The World.  Attacks are also accompanied by requests for donations; we need your money to stop them, after all.  Only we have a plan; they will eat your babies.

Political fundraising is no different than selling war bonds.  Every donation you make is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy's gun... er, a flyer in the mailbox for your best candidate.  

Who will campaign door to door for the country/province?   Why, the super-heroic leader with a plan, of course.

In political warfare, everything flows inwards and uphill; every hour volunteered, dollar donated, call made or video retweeted is meant to build the brand and capacity of the leader, like a rush of blood to the head.

For senior political operators, this is the message that needs to be communicated to the public, but especially to every paid staff, association member and volunteer - to support the cause and fend off the barbarians at the gate, you need us.

Regional members that question the Leader get chastized.  Paid staff who aren't spending their spare moments knocking on doors get fired.  Wannabes who don't go knocking on doors don't get hired.  Members who can't add to the War Chest don't make Cabinet.  Cabinet Members who disagree with the Leader don't stay in Cabinet very long.

Follow the Leader to win.

This is where political wisdom and actual military practice diverge wildly.  

In politics, the theory is that you can brow-beat, cajole, bully and pester your team as much as you want so long as you produce a win.  Do that, and all else if forgiven and forgotten.  Those who fought most aggressively (or advertized themselves most aggressively) get rewarded for what they do.  Those who didn't measure up (or, heaven forbid, complained) get ignored until the next election or dropped from databases entirely.

Morale is considered a product of victory, not a tool to achieve it.  If you can't suck it up, then you don't belong in politics.  It is a blood sport, after all.

In the military, the reverse is true.  Through hard lessons and by studying previous ground wars, great generals have learned it is an absolute failure to dismiss your troops as pawns to be moved by master strategists.  If your ground commanders take issue with a set of instructions or an approach, it pays to figure out why.

Whenever I'm giving advice to political people, this is the message I try to drive home - leaders don't win wars, teams do.  Particularly in this day and age where one campaign bleeds into the next - where, essentially, the war never ends - the maintenance of morale should be the second item on the leader's must-do list.

If a front-line soldier is dispirited, if their morale is low, they lose their focus and are more likely to wither at the first sign of steep resistance.  If a front-line retail worker feels underpaid and unappreciated, they're going to give customer service commiserate with what their bosses have indicated they are worth.  

Or, they're going to treat that customer in much the same way as they're treated - as someone that needs to get in line and do what they're told, rather than as a partner who's valued and respected.

The same holds true for politics.  Where morale is low, chances of success are low; chances of sustained success or growth are even more dismal.

It's wrong to assume that a local association or candidate is obstinate or lazy because they disagree with an approach or don't seem to get your message.  Odds are they have a reason for disagreeing, that your message wasn't properly communicated or they don't feel empowered and emboldened enough to act independently.

You might be surprised at the level of resistance this notion receives.  It goes against the whole "star spangled man with a plan" of traditional political wisdom.  It's the numbers - of dollars in the bank and memberships signed - that matter; everything that doesn't directly fuel these two endeavours is wasted effort, especially when you're talking about the leader's time.

There are three main reasons that contribute to this top-heavy, morale-low culture:

1) Politics isn't about winning, it's about survival of the fittest

If volunteers don't pan out, they'll wander off; if staff aren't doing what you demand, they can be replaced; if associations or candidates can't manage on their own, that's their problem.  

Which is why Partisans become so disconnected from reality, become geographically centralized and end up with a bunch of people at the top who think and act in exactly the same manner.

Evolution isn't consolidation, however - it's about adaptation.  You don't get that without diversity and expansion.

2) Politics focuses on battles, not the war

Get through this battle, worry about the next one later.  Promise whatever to win now, worry about implementation later.  

You can always spin your way out of the next problem, right?  Those who disagree with this sentiment just aren't functionally focused enough on what matters (see point 1) which is to keep winning (see point 3).

3) Partisans put the Party ahead of the People

Remember how I said that morale is the second most important thing leaders should focus on?  The first is vision.  

Without vision, politics is tribal warfare.  This is why you can see the same policies come from completely different Parties - even if that same Party has previously criticized that policy.

Tribes, by their very nature, are small and much more homogeneous than larger, more complex societies.  They don't need vision or complicated infrastructure to function and are much better at identifying who enemies are - they're those who aren't us.

Politics as we see it can't be tribal - not if it wants to succeed on the grander scale and certainly not if it hopes to build sustainability into our system.

And this is the biggest difference between politics and true warfare.  Wars haven't fought for leaders since the days of feudalism.  Today, wars are fought for the well-being of the people and they're fought together.

That's what our politics is missing.  Leadership isn't about people supporting you - it's about you supporting them.  

Leaders know where they're going and will do whatever it takes to help their people get there.  That's morale.

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