Office politics is one of the most poorly used tools available to workers in general and leaders in particular. You're not going to set up elaborate schemes to push rivals out or to acquire unlimited bureaucratic power. Instead, you need to look at what office politics actually can and should be, and then consider how they apply to leadership.
The problem with office politics starts with how the process is perceived. Listen to people complain about work, and they're likely to mention how unpleasant they find the office politics. This one is trying to take credit for a project, and that one is spreading rumors. None of this is what office politics can be any more than mudslinging is an example of social politics. All such escapades are misplaced grade school machinations.
Such actions are not politics because they essentially do nothing. Oh, perhaps some person still trying to overturn authority figures from adolescence will attempt personal gain, but it's petty and laughable. Peering around corners and scheming is simply not worthy of an adult with a real life.
Real Office Politics
If much that people assume is office politics actually isn't, then what does the term mean? Like the social variety, office politics is the path used to gain support to actually accomplish something worthwhile for the company. You find supporters, build coalitions, create partnerships, and convince others that what you are trying to accomplish is worth the time and effort involved. When you have enough support from others in the company, you work on resources: systems, expertise, and budget.
Does this sound familiar? It should. At its foundation, office politics is a classic application of leadership techniques. The difference between what is often thought of as office politics and the reality is the intent of the practitioner. The negative version always starts in a complete focus on you. The positive version? It starts when you focus on something else.
You want to change your view of office politics to a more useful outlook. Leadership is a way of getting people to be willing to do what you want them to do. However, that makes one big assumption: that the goals exist.
But what if they don't — yet? You need to get the goals in place so there is something to accomplish. Even then, an organization will have many potential goals, so it must also recognize relative importance among them. When everyone knows what is more important, the group can start to create priorities among the goals and properly apportion resources of all sorts. Office politics is actually is the use of leadership to focus the group internally and have it voluntarily create the understanding of what it should be doing. Much of what leaders do involves negotiating the political environments of organizations.
When applied in this sense, office politics becomes an undertaking that is almost anthropological in nature. You are interested in seeing decisions made and in obtaining support for your team and its goals. One of the best preparations for leading in a corporation (or, frankly, any other organization) is to become intimately aware of the structure of its politics. Some people with power can help get things done, while others generally oppose change and improvement.
You can learn the most about company politics from talking to people with a history in the business at a lower level. Executives who understand office politics are often tied up in their own interests. People who have taken time to learn about the structure to avoid being run over by it are more likely to have the most objective views.
To that end, you have to learn how the organization actually makes choices and determines what it will do — not how an org chart states it should happen, but how the process actually occurs. You start as a researcher would, by paying attention to what is around you. Listen to everyone in the organization and strike up conversations, asking people how they might go about getting support for something specific. Know the power players and political actors in an organization and understand their individual histories and alliances.
Dealing with the Negative
Even if you are trying to use politics to gain agreement and support for undertakings that would be good for the company, not everyone will work this way. The negative approach to office politics is too well entrenched in the world, and you'll never find an organization that is completely free of it. You can't get rid of it, and you don't want to join it, so you must learn to work around people's machinations.
Most people have worked at some point for a company that doesn't aspire to anything great. If there is no room for meaning and true vision in the company, move on to find a more worthy employer. Life is too short to hunt for scraps in a dung heap.
You must first make your intent clear, particularly to yourself. For positive office politics to work, it must be about achieving something for the organization, and not for you, personally. Your gain is in the practice of leadership skills, nothing more. Of course, you probably want to advance in your career, but the most certain way of doing so is to offer ever-increasing amounts of value to the organization. This is similar to how companies do best financially, by continuing to delight and help their customers, while exercising prudent and frugal operations.
The minute you use politics to advance your personal interests is the moment when you turn to the negative type. If you've done so, go back to square one. Consider what the organization is trying to do and how its goals match your aspirations and sense of meaning. The only way to avoid getting caught up in plots is to concentrate on something higher than personal interests — to get above the fray. The more you do this, the more people will cease to perceive you as a competitor and skip the time it would take to oppose your efforts.