Harper Business, 273 pages, $32.99
Government revolves around power. Political parties seek power. They implement their ideas with the help of government executives, who are sensitive not just to the power of their political masters but the power held at various levels of the civil service. If you lack an antenna attuned to power, you probably won’t get too far in government.
At the same time, not many conventional leadership books tell people in government – or outside government – about power. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a noted Stanford University professor, therefore should be welcomed with his latest book, a primer on power. It’s based on a leadership course he teaches, with examples from both the private and public sector.
He opens by arguing that to be effective in figuring out your path to power and to actually use his advice you must first transcend three obstacles that block many people from seeking power. The first is the notion that you don’t have to seek power because the world is a just place, and your talent will take you to the top if you just focus on doing your job exceptionally well. That may well be true, but if you are too accepting that fate will take care of you he argues it may prevent you from learning from all situations and all people. Second, it will anesthetize you to the need to be proactive in building a power base, and the landmines that might blow up your dreams.
The second obstacle is the leadership literature, often written by successful leaders who gloss over the role power plays in their lives. They wax eloquently instead on following your inner compass, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying way. He says those are all “prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved. There is no doubt that the world would be a much better, more humane place if people were always authentic, modest, truthful, and consistently concerned for the welfare of others instead of pushing their own aims. But that world doesn’t exist.” Those in power get to write history, and it may not be entirely truthful.
The third obstacle he cites is you. “People are often their own worst enemy,” he declares. “That’s in part because people like to feel good about themselves and maintain a positive self-image. And, ironically, one of the best ways for people to preserve their self-esteem is to either pre-emptively surrender, or do other things that put obstacles in their own way.”
Since failing would put our self-esteem at risk, we intentionally erect barriers so that failing won’t seem to reflect our innate abilities. “Having taught material on power for decades, I have come to believe that the biggest single effect I can have is to get people to try to become powerful. That’s because people are afraid of setbacks and the implications for their self-image, so often they don’t do all they can to increase their power,” he declares.
He also challenges the myth that performance will carry you to success – and power. He looks at people whose performance was superb but were bounced from their job because they weren’t sensitive to the power dynamic, and people denied promotions because their boss needed them to stay where they were. Beyond those anecdotal stories, he notes that research studies show a weak link between performance and job outcomes. “So great job performance by itself is insufficient and may not even be necessary for getting and holding positions of power. You need to be noticed, influence the dimensions used to measure your accomplishments, and mostly make sure you are effective at managing those in power – which requires the ego to enhance the ego of those above you,” he writes.
Your first responsibility is to ensure those at the highest levels of your organization know what you are accomplishing. After all, they have to choose you for a senior role. If you blend into the woodwork, you won’t stand a chance. So you need to be visible. Become familiar to them, since research shows familiarity produces preference. “Simply put, in many cases, being memorable equals getting picked,” he points out.
Since nobody can perform equally well on all the dimensions of their work, you want to constantly emphasize those aspects at which you excel. He points to Tina Brown, the editor who presided over great growth in advertising revenues and circulation at the helm of The New Yorker magazine and Vanity Fair. Neither made a profit, but that didn’t hurt her; she managed to attain lots of publicity for the boost to revenues and circulation – and in particular her skill for timely stories that illuminated the culture of the day. “There are limits to what you can do to affect the criteria used to judge your work. But you can highlight those dimensions of job performance that favour you – and work against your competition,” he advises.
One of those dimensions will be whether you make those in power feel better about themselves. Everyone, including your boss, is insecure in some way. They need to seek out positive information and avoid negative feedback. So help them.
“Worry about the relationship you have with your boss at least as much as you worry about your job performance. If your boss makes a mistake, see if someone else other than you will point it out. And if you do highlight some error or problem, do so in a way that does not in any way implicate the individual’s own self-concept or competence – for instance, by blaming the error on others or on the situation. The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or have a difficult relationship with those in power,” he says.
Flattery works. He says it induces reciprocity. If you compliment someone, that person owes you something in return, just as if you had bought them a dinner or gave them a gift. Jack Valenti, the legendary head of the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years, was notorious for buttering up people. Working as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s, he was intensely loyal and constantly agreeing with his boss. In a speech, he said, “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my president.” He flattered the studio heads he worked for as head of the Association. And when he received a thank you note after speaking at Pfeffer’s class, he sent back a handwritten message complimenting the professor for his thank you.
From the research literature and his own analysis of political and business biographies, Pfeffer came up with seven personal qualities that help to build power: ambition, energy, focus, self-knowledge, confidence, empathy with others, and capacity to tolerate conflict. You may have noted that intelligence isn’t on the list. Just as high performance isn’t vital for attaining power, neither is intelligence.
Research suggests intelligence seldom accounts for more than 20 percent of the variation in work performance between people, and as we’ve noted the relationship between performance and attaining power is weak. People who are exceptionally smart may lack empathy and collaboration skills. They also might get carried away by their own brainpower so that they make dumb decisions. As examples, he simply points to titles of books on fiascos, such as David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest on the Vietnam war and Bethany McLean’s and Peter Elkind’s The Smartest Guys in the Room on the demise of Enron.
That sets the foundation for readers. He then moves on, with a blend of research and practical advice, to show the various steps in attaining power and the dangers that might lie ahead. Even where you start – what job or department – can be crucial, and he explains how to increase your odds simply through that choice, assuming y