Book reviews

Power: Why Some People Have It–and Others Don’t

Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of my favorite business writers, and unlike others who have been writing for a long time, his newest book ranks among his best work. Power is Machiavelli in modern terms, reinforced with current management thought and social psychology. It’s also a useful and refreshing balance to so much writing today that shies away from straight talk about what actually happens in organizations and what it really takes to get ahead.

As Pfeffer says, one reason that there is not a lot written about power is that people who have risen to the top and written about how they got there rarely are open about the tactics they used. Most business and political autobiographies are self-serving and gloss over the realities.

For me, there are three main criteria that determine whether I recommend a book: the volume of notes I make, the amount of ideas it sparks in my mind, especially those challenge conventional thinking, and the citations in the back that supply me with additional reading from the research literature. Power ranks very highly in all three criteria.

Here are a few counterintuitive ideas from the book:

The pursuit of power is not merely selfish. Lest it seem that power is merely a selfish concept, keep in mind that if you want to accomplish good in this world, you still have to get stuff done, usually with the help of other people. Power is neutral, but you can’t get anything important done without it. While it may be true that power corrupts, the lack of power can be just as harmful, causing alienation, resentment, and a bare-minimum approach to the job. It can even affect people physically: a well-known study of British civil servants showed that mortality risk goes up as power and status go down.

Performance is overrated. Pfeffer says: “…as long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much, and by contrast, if you upset them, performance won’t save you.” He then cites extensive research documenting that actual job performance has a weak correlation to success and status.

Likability is also overrated. I’ve  written about how being liked can make you more persuasive, but Pfeffer cites research that shows that people who are critical of others are perceived as more intelligent and  competent. (Although, if it’s true that competence has a weak correlation with power, then maybe it is more important to be liked.) While Pfeffer’s logic might be a little weak here, his major point is that rather than likability creating power, the reverse is usually true. When you’re in power, it’s amazing how people suddenly start liking you, and how your jokes automatically get funnier.

Get over yourself. Pfeffer believes his single biggest effect from teaching his course on power at Stanford is to get people to try to become powerful. Although some people seem to be naturally powerful, achieving power is less about personal attributes that you’re born with and more about ambition, focus, and the patient application of skills, including networking, controlling resources, acting with power and building a reputation.

The “how to” section of the book contains useful advice, including how to stand out and build a reputation, develop your networks, act and speak with power (as Peter Ueberroth said: “Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken.”), and overcome opposition.

Although we’re a long way from the cutthroat world of the Italian city states, the scramble for the top can still be pretty ruthless, and hard work and rose colored glasses are not always enough.

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