We often admire people who attain power. But if there’s one take-away from Pfeffer’s book, “Power: Why Some People Have it—and Others Don’t,” it’s that the powerful don’t actually deserve it.
There is no justice in the earthly allocation of power.
This is a profound concept, and not a welcome one. Most of us want to think that justice and power are linked. Social psychologists call this the “just-world hypothesis.” In the 1960s, flower power epitomized this yearning (captured brilliantly in Riboud’s photo of a Vietnam War protester), and in the 1800s the idea of “manifest destiny” was used to justify America’s expansion westward, personified in a lovely John Gast painting of an angel bearing the light of progress and a telegraph wire.
Today, the pundits of leadership like to cast power in a glow just as noble—as the natural outcropping of hard work, authenticity, modesty and sharing glory. We’d love this to be true. But as Pfeffer aptly points out, leadership literature is written by and for the powerful, or by their followers (who may be even more likely to distort reality). And it mostly shows how people act after they have power, not how they got there in the first place.
The reality is that it’s not unusual for people to get good performance ratings simply because the boss was the one who hired them, good performance won’t necessarily protect your job, and executives can rake in big bonuses even as they help to burn their organizations to the ground.
Pfeffer’s book explains all this, and more. And he offers a solution: We should take a lesson from those who have power, even if we don’t like them.
I’ve held an interest in power since my days as a sociology graduate student at UCLA, when I researched how priests in the world’s first civilizations also controlled the silos of grain. Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior, examines research on the rise and fall of leaders, and their “grain silos” of networking, self promotion and strategic moves.
He points out that many business leaders have noble traits. But they’re likely to have adopted those traits after, not before, their success. Power is not the result of doing what’s right—or even of a job well done. Rather, it’s about political maneuvering and marketing. This sounds cynical, but Pfeffer believes the research supports it.
Seven key traits help people achieve power (and Pfeffer emphasizes that anyone can develop them): ambition, energy, focus, self-knowledge, confidence, empathy, and the capacity to tolerate conflict.
Notice “intelligence” is not on the list. That’s because smart people tend to derail themselves because they have trouble delegating and they act like know-it-alls. There is also little place for ethics on the list. Pfeffer does include “empathy” as an important trait, but defines it as the ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings. Since that’s something even a sociopath can do—it’s not likely that Hitler had empathy, but he certainly was able to tap into people’s fears and desires—Pfeffer probably should use a more accurate description of this trait, like “shrewd perception.”
Steve Jobs had shrewd perception, but his personality and leadership “style” are not the exemplar of cultivating power. Jobs often did not give others credit for their ideas, called people “bozos,” was a perfectionist, eschewed PowerPoint, and was obnoxious, controlling and manipulative.
Pfeffer’s insights (and common sense) make it clear that anyone who acts like Jobs will not advance. If your boss wants a PowerPoint presentation, you create one; being a perfectionist is more likely to get you pigeon holed into one job than lead to a promotion; and being obnoxious and controlling isn’t likely to get you noticed in a good way. It’s important to remember that Jobs started his own business and didn’t have to “manage up”; he acted impertinently after he was already in charge. He probably could have just as well acted noble, and achieved as much success with Apple.
Pfeffer’s book provides solid advice for how to be noticed, to influence the way your accomplishments are measured, and to enhance the egos of those above you—all of which, unfortunately, are likely to be required to achieve positions of leadership.
Despite the disturbing realities put forth in “Power,” Pfeffer does reveal that power is in fact a level playing field. No single person is destined to achieve power, and we can all work on the traits that help us amass it, and prevent ourselves from giving it away.
The meek, as it turns out, do have a stab at inheriting the Earth. With Pfeffer’s book in hand and a strong moral compass, good people might be able to accomplish a lot more than they think.