Since returning from sabbatical and facing a myriad of challenges that have stretched me in many directions, I’ve thought a lot about three specific words. These three words are words that get tossed around a lot. They are even frequently used as if they were synonymous for one another. To me they are not. In fact their differences are HUGE to me.
What are those three words?
Candidate, politician, and official.
Let me take a moment to reflect on these words and tell me what they mean to me. Please read that last sentence very carefully – for the last five words of the sentence are critically important.
When I say I want to talk about what these words mean to me, I am not talking about the meaning of these words purely from a detached perspective (i.e. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “candidate” to mean …). Nor am I talking about the accepted social meaning the words have taken on (i.e. the word “politician” has come to mean slimy or self-serving by many in our society). I am simply talking about what these words mean to me. With that, let me begin.
For me, a candidate is someone who steps forward in hopes of serving others. In order to serve, however, a candidate must do what it takes to be selected. When I use the word candidate, I think about one whose primary focus is on securing her or his desired position.
Let me skip over the second word (politician) for a moment, and talk about the third word: official. For me, an official is someone who has a specific job to do. Unlike a candidate – whose primary focus is on doing what it takes to be selected for a position – an official gives little concern about the selection process. Instead, an effective official has a laser-like focus on performing what I – using Machiavellian terms – might call “the ends”, or enacting the policies related to one’s position.
I purposely saved my favorite of the three words for last: politician. For me, a politician is someone who bridges the chasm between candidates (those focused on seeking a position) and officials (those focused on performing the job duties). A politician in the best sense of the word is someone who understands that only one thing is more important than “the ends”: the means one uses to get to the ends.
One of the challenges about the way our American culture has defined leadership is that they try to roll all three words (or ways of being) into one person. If a person aspires to an elected position like President, a person has to start by being a candidate; once elected, the person must function like an official in terms of tending to their duties or responsibilities; and then function as a politician, in order to build relationships and coalitions that allow one to get things done and increase the likelihood the person will be successful the next time they are a candidate. A truly gifted leader will pepper her or his identity as politician throughout the whole process!
I believe things have broken down in our society because we have lots of folks who want to be candidates or officials – and very few who want to be politicians.
Why is that a problem?
Because politicians are those folks who truly care and are concerned about the WAY in which we go about doing things – especially tending to the relationships forged along the way. These days all many people care about is getting to positions where THEY can get THEIR way. This breaks my heart.
Today, as you move through the world, I would invite you to pay attention to the way you approach things. Are you coming from places where you are primarily a candidate – always consciously positioning yourself to get where you want to go? Are you coming from places where you are in the mindset of an official – considering only the tasks that lie before you? Or are you a politician – paying attention to the needs and perceptions of others that inform how you move through the world?
The reality, of course, is that all of us function in each role throughout the course of our day. You might be a little concerned, however, if you are living your life out of one of these roles and completely ignoring the others.
See you next time.