One of the Biggest Challenges in Politics: Political groupies

I’m not the guy to talk to about cooking meat on the grill or sports statistics. Small talk to me is like getting stuck in the mud, and I hate it. And every time there is a holiday where typically there is a lot of small talk, I’m miserable in those circumstances. Normal stuff is the most boring kind of stuff to how I think about things. I appreciate it for the “life stuff” that it is, but I personally don’t like doing it.   What I do like talking about is how to save the world. If it’s a big all-encompassing topic, well, then I do like to talk about it. And because of that trait, I tend to know many people who are trying to save the world from their own particular view of it. That puts me in contact with many people who spend their time in leadership positions, especially in politics. As people who know me most understand, I have very specific rules for leadership that I apply to the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week for everything. There isn’t a minute in any day where I’m not thinking about leadership and how it can be used to make the world a better place, professionally, politically, or privately. Each week I speak to many hundreds of people, all of them in some leadership role. And there is a particular problem that they all have that never really gets talked about, no matter if the position is a political one or a professional capacity. The issues are always the same. I call their specific problem the “political groupies” that often loom in the background and seek to live through a leader because, for whatever reasons, they don’t feel comfortable in those roles themselves. Still, they want the prestige of such roles for lots of personal reasons. 

One of the hardest things for a politician to do is make that transition from an ordinary person to a public persona. To move from campaign mode into an actual leadership role without tossing away all the promises that were made to the public. Many political figures assume that they are two different things and that what goes on in campaigns isn’t practical for the actual leadership once the work begins. They end up split in many ways between campaign mode, which includes fundraising, and the business of consensus building to get votes. What ends up giving politicians a bad name is when they find that transition impossible to negotiate.

On the one hand, they have to put on a show for their donors, the people who actually go to the polls to vote, and the daily grind of whatever job they are doing. It reminds me a lot of a rock band where the sexy stuff is on stage where all the action happens, but most of the time, the business of writing music, getting good at performing on stage, and life between the gigs can be monotonous. Rock bands that are most famous often turn to drugs and other forms of personal abuse to reconcile their emotional swings. Politics is a lot of the same kind of challenge, but it usually doesn’t get viewed that way, which maybe it should. Building up the brand of a public persona is part of political life. And not losing yourself in that role is very difficult for most people. At best, it’s hard. Especially when there are people who come along with the political figures, and they help with the campaigns, they put out yard signs, donate money, and work behind the scenes in ways that may be helpful, but the emotional aspects of those friendships are often like an anchor to the public official. Anchors are great if you want to stand still in the middle of the ocean. But they aren’t so good if you need to move fast and dynamically react to the world. 

In all forms of leadership, I have a policy of hands-off. I will seek out leaders, but once they are in a position to lead, I give them full autonomy. The worst thing that could be done to such people is to undermine them with micromanagement. They need to think for themselves. For instance, out of those hundreds of people who I speak to every week, I do not give them my opinion on what I think they should or should not be doing. I will offer advice if they want it, but part of the reason you want to help put leaders in place is so they can lead. And micromanaging is not leading. Micromanaging is trying to live through other people because there is something in the micromanager that wants the glory of leadership without the responsibility of actually doing it. I call those types of people political groupies. They are like the groupies that you find in rock bands; they like to tell people in the audience that they are with the band, that they know what song they will play next, and in that way, they might get to be famous too, without the burden of actually being on stage and the pressure that comes with it. Many political figures have to learn that interacting with people in the audience is different. They don’t want someone who will respond to social media; they expect some representation of the brand that was created during the campaign to represent their interests at all times and having too personal of a relationship with the world violates the unsaid aspects of leadership that are so important. Being too accessible destroys the illusions of leadership that most people want to have. And what the groupies often do that is unintentional is that they act as a bridge between the theatrical role of the leadership position and the normal meat grilling audience who are always looking for leadership in everything they do in life. 

I personally like to help leadership birth its way into existence through people. If there are doctors out there who want to deliver babies into the world, I would best see myself who is the doctor who delivers leadership. But once they are born, I do not make it my mission to tell those lives how to live. To tell them how to be leaders. To do so is to erode away the validity of their own existence and rob them of the joys that do come from leadership. Often it’s not the various lobbyists who end up causing so much corruption among political figures; it’s the friends and tag-alongs who come with a candidate who holds back the fruits of leadership most because its impossible to take them on the complete journey, especially when it comes to building up the personal brand of the leader and maintaining that brand through all public interactions. It’s a balancing act that doesn’t get a lot of attention under any psychological scrutiny, but it is one of the most common frustrations that occur in political leadership roles. It’s a manageable condition, and there are ways that everyone can come away as part of the success story. And it’s worth doing when it all comes together. But it isn’t easy by a long shot. 

Rich Hoffman

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