on August 19, 2011
I've been shuffling among academe, consulting, and private-sector executive positions for 35 years and this book really saddens me. (So much that I am writing my first Amazon review). The book promises to tell you about the "real" nature of leadership opportunities, disabuse you of your naive notions about what you might wish were true, and provide you with a set of techniques so you can successfully accumulate power. In a nut shell: liars, bastards, suck-ups and backstabbers win promotions most of the time and if you want to garner power, it's more important to play the game than to perform well. Which, I guess I actually agree with to a large degree, but that's only news to an academic. Ask any VP or above in a large corporation or see how many senior executives leave any company "happy." But what really makes me sad . . . I would have hoped that a professor of OB at Stanford would have included a chapter discussing whether this is a morally reasonable situation or at least what the instrumental impact on organizational effectiveness might be.
Some specifics: the word "ethics" does not appear in the index (nor in the book as far as I can tell); he uses Oliver North's testimony before Congress (you know -- when he lied) as a great example of effective "power speech"; he applauds Rahm Emanuel's profane screaming outbursts as effective positioning; he says that if a CEO trusts ANYONE, he (or possibly she) is a fool; that people actually like to work in hierarchic control and will gravitate to you if you are powerful even if they despise you. All of this without even a small nod to ethical or moral questions. And he never, ever questions whether one should consider pursuing happiness, satisfaction, spiritual fulfillment, or family rather than "power." (I'm not making this up: the last sentences in the book are, "So seek power as if your life depends on it. Because it does.")
The book comes across as kind of a scholar's version of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" minus the humor or an updated version of "The Prince" minus the historical gravitas. But what depresses me even more is that the reviews (as far as I've seen) are positive -- applause for "telling it like it is!" and "I've made this mandatory for my MBA classes." I'm really saddened at what our field has to offer. No wonder more and more people question whether business degrees are worth the money and whether business schools are fueling a pandemic of moral blindness.
Could I be reading it wrong?
on September 30, 2010
Want to get a good job? Want to move up the corporate ladder? What are the tools you are going to need?
A good education? Hard work and smarts? Being well liked?
Not so much, at least according to Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford Business School professor and author of numerous books on this and related subjects. No, despite popular notions and the usual urban myths, Pfeffer contends that the path to power is significantly different than the popular notions we were raised to believe.
In "Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't," Pfeffer sets out example after example of just how poorly served executives are by using the above listed methods and instead take a more aggressive approach to the utilization of tools like building relationships (always appear to be supporting your boss), networking, self-promotion (in healthy doses, but not too much), organizational visibility, control of information as well as the usual power profile advice on initial impressions, speech, posture, etc.
Pfeffer uses numerous examples - from the top of the corporate ladder (former GE boss, Jack Welch, of course, but also Bill Clinton, a former chairperson of Time, Inc, Ollie North and others) to those just getting started (including new recruits and interns) to illustrate what works and what doesn't in stark, cold terms. While Pfeffer admits that his techniques may not be for everyone or may make some squeamish, he recommends you try them anyway and keep your fears to yourself as you work your way up the corporate ladder, preferably quickly.
The only disappointment here is perhaps in the labeling. While a title as generic as "Power" might be perceived to be a tome on personal title, it seems most of Pfeffer's teachings are strictly related to the type of hierarchical ladders of the corporate workplace. If you're looking for something more relating to personal power or even entrepreneurial power, this may not be the book for you.
Check out this Q&A with author Jeffrey Pfeffer.
I have read and reviewed all of the previous books that Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote or co-authored and consider this one his most valuable because his focus is much less on dysfunctional organizations and how to resuscitate them; indeed, he focuses almost entirely on what any ambitious person needs to understand about what power is...and isn't. Unlike his approach in any other of the previous books, Pfeffer establishes a direct rapport with his reader and seems to be saying, in effect, "Over the years, I've learned a great deal about power will now share with you what I hope you will find most interesting and, more to the point, most useful." In the Introduction, for example, he suggests that having power is related to living a longer and healthier life, that power and the visibility and stature that accompany can produce wealth, and that power is part of leadership and necessary to get things done, whatever the nature and extent of the given objectives may be. "Power is desirable to many, albeit not all, people, for what it can provide and also a goal in and of itself."
Although Pfeffer does not invoke the core metaphor from Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" in The Republic, I think it is especially relevant to the various misconceptions about power that Pfeffer refutes. The situation in Plato's allegory is that people are located in a darkened cave watching shadows dance on a wall. (The source of light is outside the cave.) They think they are watching ultimate realities. Rather, what they observe are images, yes, but also distortions. The same is true of the "just world hypothesis" that the world is predictable, comprehensible, and therefore potentially controllable. Worse yet, it implies that "people get what they deserve; that is, that the good people are likely to be rewarded and the bad to be punished. Most important," Pfeffer adds, "the phenomenon works in reverse: if someone is seen to prosper, there is a social psychological tendency for observers to decide that the lucky person must have done something to deserve his good fortune."
Pfeffer insists that the world is neither just nor unjust: it is. He also challenges "leadership literature" (including his contributions to it) because celebrity CEOs who tout their own careers as models tend to "gloss over power plays they actually used to get to the top" whereas authors such as Pfeffer offer "prescriptions about how people [begin italics] wish [end italics] the world and the powerful behaved." Pfeffer also suggests that those aspiring to power "are often their own worst enemy, and not just in the arena of building power" because of self-handicapping, a reluctance (perhaps even a refusal) to take initiatives that may fail and thereby diminish one's self-image. "I have come to believe that the biggest single effect I can have is to get people to [begin italics] try to become powerful." Pfeffer wrote this book as an operations manual for the acquisition and retention of power. Of even greater importance, in my opinion, he reveals the ultimate realities of what power is...and isn't...and thereby eliminates the shadows of illusion and self-deception that most people now observe in the "caves" of their current circumstances.
Here are a few of Pfeffer's key points that caught my eye, (albeit out of context):
In the workplace, "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." (Page 21)
"Asking for help is something people often avoid. First of all, it's inconsistent with the American emphasis on self-reliance. Second, people are afraid of rejection because of what getting g turned down might do to their self-esteem. Third, requests for help are based on their likelihood of being granted." (Page78)
"Power and influence [within social networks] come not just from the extensiveness of your network and the status of its members, but also from your structural position within that network. Centrality matters. Research shows that centrality within both advice and friendship networks produces many benefits, including access to information, positive performance ratings, and higher pay." (Page 119)
"Not only are reputations and first impressions formed quickly, but they are durable. Research has identified several processes that account for the persistence of initial reputations or, phrased differently, the importance of the order in which information is presented. All three processes are plausible. We don't need to know which is operating to worry about making a good first impression." (Pages 150-151)
Note: The three processes are attention decrement, cognitive discounting, and a version of the self-fulfilling prophecy, joined by a fourth (biased assimilation), all of which Pfeffer explains on Pages 151-153.
"Michael Marmot's study of 18,000 British civil servants - all people working in office jobs - in the same society - uncovered that people at the bottom of the hierarchy had [begin italics] four times [end italics] the risk of death as those at the top. [Check out Marmot's The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health, published by Times Books.] Controlling for risk factors such as smoking or obesity did not make the social gradient in health disappear, nor did statistically controlling for longevity of one's parents. As Marmot concludes, `Social circumstances in life predict health.' So seek power as if your life depends on it. Because it does." (Page 236)
Much of great value has been written about how to establish and then sustain a "healthy" organization. The fact remains, that cannot be achieved without enough people who possess sufficient power. In my opinion, Jeffrey Pfeffer is determined (obsessed?) to increase the number of such people, one reader at a time. Hopefully those who read this book will help others to acquire the power they need to be successful, influential, and most important of all healthy.
on September 19, 2010
I just finished reading Jeffrey Pfeffer's POWER and tomorrow it will become required reading for all my MBA students. Pfeffer has spent his career researching and writing about power and this is his best work yet. You don't have to be an academic to understand, appreciate and use what Pfeffer has learned about power, but, if you are an academic, you will appreciate how he has backed up all his advice with good data. Anyone planning a career in management needs to understand power--how to get it, use it, keep it, and, when the time is right, give it up gracefully. This book shows you how. My only criticism is that I would have liked to have seen a chapter on using power ethically. With all the business scandals of late, it wouldn't hurt to remind readers not to abuse others with the power you acquire. Power, like money, it neither good or bad; it all depends on what you do with it. Using power to get into a position where you can make a positive difference and applying that power to implement needed change can be done ethically but Pfeffer fails to address that fact. However, this book is the best I've seen at helping others understand the facts about power. If you want to make a difference in practically any walk of life, this book is a must read.
As I read through this book I started to develop misgivings. While at first it felt to me like a reality-check and collection of good advice to achieve power in the work place, as I read along I started to question a few things: First: why go after power? Why not strive for something like influence instead? Second, I began to feel that in this power game other individuals are only a means to an end, and that in itself is not good. Finally, as the author went along, I began to get a sense that this striving for power comes along with many if not great costs. Indeed, one of his last chapters is a summary of the costs.
There is also a kind of implicit elitism in the book. Those who strive for power are the good warriors in the battle of the boardrooms; everyone else is just supporting cast and extras. There is unstated demeaning of the average worker who is not up to the glorious battles for power. What about those who are genuinely happy doing whatever it is they do, even if it doesn't come with a golden parachute attached?
I do see the value of Pffefer's realism: hard work and performance alone do not guarantee success, either monetarily or in promotions. This is a hard fact to accept when you are raised privately and socialized publically to believe it is so. Politics, gamesmanship, schmoozing, control, access, etc, play a key role in whether and how far you advance. If you choose the path to power to ensure your success, however, you will need to do two things: first, determine whether you are willing to bear the costs; and, second, decide whether you are ethically comfortable with using individuals as a means to an end. Good luck, either way.
on November 25, 2011
This is an excellent, educational and effective business book, like Professor Pfeffer's previous book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action You will learn useful things from this book whether you agree with or abhor the practices it educates us about.
Many people will not like what this book teaches about how things work in business, government and other organizations in the real world. I did not like many of the lessons this book teaches. Many of us want to believe what's in this book to be not true. Most reviews of this book are highly favorable with 5-star ratings, and it seems that a small handful of reviewers have given this book a one-star rating because they are uncomfortable with and dislike the findings presented in this book. The truth can be a bitter pill to swallow.
The lessons taught in this book constitute an accurate, frank and honest description of reality: An ugly reality of how humans have interacted for centuries and continue to. Similar content has appeared in scholarly works for thousands of years. Here are some examples: The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra ,Essentials of Indian Statecraft; Kautilya's Arthasastra for Contemporary Readers and Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (Dover Thrift Editions) These ancient books are taught in universities. Professor Pfeffer's modern treatise deserves to be taught at universities across the world.
I did not assume that the methods described in this book are the only way to power and success. On that note, having power and being successful or happy are not always the same thing. This book does not present laws of mathematics that always hold true. It is a book about human behavior and its results, things that have different results in different situations. What this book describes has been true of many people in many situations throughout human history. I do personally believe there are other nice, kind and ethical ways to power too: However, what this book teaches can not the disputed as history corroborates it. To not believe this book's findings would be like believing that every person is a caring, kind and ethical human being.
In a fair, balanced and research-based style, the book also describes the negative results of having power. It presentes findings from evidence based research. Knowledge of the behaviors described in this book will be helpful to those who do not subscribe to the philosophy of power it describes: It will enable ethical, good-hearted and nice people to know what's going on when interacting with those who use the methods described in this book.
Many of us want to believe in things different from what this book teaches. This is a not a "feel good about the world" book, but a book about some of life's harsh realities. If you want a "feel good" book about leadership, I recommend Steven Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
I recommend that you buy a copy of this book and read it once a year, especially if you hate what this book teaches :-) If you are against the behaviors described in this book, you need to recognize, understand and counter them.
on November 3, 2010
Probably the most Machiavellian business book I've ever read, but one that challenged many of my assumptions. More than any of the dozens of business books I have read, this book made me understand what it takes to climb the corporate ladder and question whether I really wanted to pursue that.
The challenges to my assumptions start at the first chapter, "It Takes More Than Performance", where Pfeffer states flatly that "the data shows that performance doesn't matter that much for what happens to most people in most organizations" and that "not only may outstanding job performance not guarantee you a promotion, it can even hurt." Later, Pfeffer points out that intelligence and academic performance have "virtually no ability to explain who rises to the top" and are "often overrated as an attribute that will help people attain power", even going as far as to argue that intelligence can hinder advancement by causing people to be more self-sufficient, less collaborative, and more intimidating.
Rather, Pfeffer argues, power requires managing up. You need to get noticed, network, be demanding, make people (especially people with power) look good, and act with extreme confidence and energy, as if you already have the power you desire. You need to be ruthless, assume others will cut you down if they get the chance, but also form alliances, especially with those with greater power. Achieving power has very little to do with competence and intelligence, Pfeffer argues, but with who knows you, who supports you, and your willingness to immediately grab opportunities to gain power whenever they come up while pushing over those who get in your way.
Machiavellian it is, but also realistic, at least from what I have seen in my career. Whether you want to do this or not is another question, one which Pfeffer touches on in his last chapters "The Price of Power" and "How -- and Why -- People Lose Power". I found these chapters particularly valuable as they forced me to consider whether I really want to fight the battles, play the political games, and climb over the bodies necessary to achieve power.
Much like the classics, such as The Prince or Art of War, this is a dark but practical book on doing what it takes to achieve power and success. If you are at all like me, more than any other business book, it will get you to think about what you want to do in your career, what is necessary to climb the corporate ladder, and whether you want that to be part of your life and legacy.
on June 8, 2011
I thought Pfeffer was going to dispense something new and enlightened to define why certain people had influence and others don't. All he did was rehash the Gordon Gecko model of leadership, which is boiled down to be cunning, manipulate others by telling them what they want to hear and master the political game in whatever organization or industry you want to gain power in.
Not sure how this book has gotten such high ratings, unless it's being read by people without a soul or moral compass to not step on others necks to advance their career.
Dan Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is a much more enlightened approach to leadership by helping everyone around you gain autonomy, achieve mastery in their craft and have a burning purpose for it. Granted, he doesn't spell out how to gain power and influence directly, but it's pretty obvious that his approach to empowerment will lead to power and influence and be much more sustainable than the poor examples Pfeffer cites.
Very glad I didn't waste any money on this book as it was readily available at my library.
on August 23, 2011
Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
I found this book incredibly interesting. The book is well-written, extremely well organized, and well-supported (16 pages of notes) in addition to hundreds of relevant, important, and pungent examples. I found the information to be honest, forthright, and right on target.
I tended to agree with Pfeffer's negative evaluations of other books on leadership (even though it may be a bit self-serving), but after reading Pfeffer's various suggestions for gaining power, you realize that so many other author's books lack the force, bite, sharpness, and honesty that Pfeffer delivers.
One thing I felt as I was reading was that I pictured myself in a college classroom listening to a well-informed, interesting lecturer. There are great examples, and the book is pretty easy to read. It should be clear that you don't have to be a college student or an academic to appreciate Pfeffer's information and insights.
Another thing I discovered from reading this book is something I learned rather early when I was teaching speech-communication classes -- especially those sections dealing with persuasion. At one point I was asked by one of my students (and it occurred several times throughout my career), "Couldn't someone take the ideas and principles you are teaching and become another Hitler?" The answer is clearly yes.
The best way (perhaps the only way) I found to counter or address these concerns is to talk extensively about ethics -- how to properly and ethically use the information and ideas they were learning. Also, a unit or section on ethics exists in every textbook on public speaking or persuasion. There is no way to guarantee that such messages get through to students; however, class discussions, coverage on examinations, in addition to such units or sections in textbooks, is the way we approach the ethics issue. There is no discussion of ethics in this book; perhaps, there should be.
Pfeffer's suggestions for gaining power far exceed any of the persuasive strategies I taught in college, and someone bent on using his ideas in a negative fashion could certainly wreak more havoc in a shorter amount of time than they could with persuasion alone. If anyone, after reading this book, thinks this is all common sense or skills that any opportunist might use, then I beg to differ. They are not reading Pfeffer closely or they are not understanding his suggestions. (--or, they are already wreaking havoc!)
I found this to be an interesting statement: "Many studies of the predictors of career success, focusing on both the general population and specific subpopulations such as business school graduates, have found that mental aptitude correlates somewhat with grades in school but has virtually no ability to explain who rises to the top" (p. 55).
I absolutely loved his use of current examples such as Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Willie Brown, Ishan Gupta, Caroline Kennedy, Frank Stanton, Oliver North, Barack Obama, and many others.
His Chapter 7, "Acting and Speaking with Power (pp. 125-146), caught my attention because of my background in speech communication. This is, indeed, the chapter that traces Lt. Colonel Oliver North's return to power after being indicted on 16 felony counts, "including accepting illegal gratuities, aiding and abetting the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and destroying documents and evidence" (p. 125). Also, in this chapter, the comparison between North and Donald Kennedy (former president of Stanford University) and the manner in which they testified before a congressional investigating committee is offered. I found it eye-opening, and Pfeffer's comment about it is rich in meaning: "We choose how we will act and talk, and those decisions are consequential for acquiring and holding on to power" (p. 128).
Did you know this? "Although the research literature shows the interview is not a reliable or valid selection mechanism, it is almost universally used . . . To come across effectively, we need to master how to convey power. We need to act, and speak, with power" (p. 129).
Using examples of Peter Ueberroth, Andy Grove, Gary Loverman, and Rahm Emanuel (among others), Pfeffer clearly demonstrates how to act and speak with power using interruption, contesting the premises of the discussion, using persuasive language (and Max Atkinson's linguistic techniques).
Although Pfeffer advocates using "humor to the extent possible and appropriate" and even cites novelist Salman Rushtie saying, "If you make people laugh, you can tell them anything" (p. 145), there isn't a great deal of humor in this 273-page book. It could use some; however, it is direct, strong, straightforward, and powerful. I recommend it.
on October 20, 2013
Leadership without moral standards is a serious issue as the desire for more power is addictive, as the author correctly states on page 196. Can you expect that leaders that are addicts to act responsibly? Of course not!
In every ordered society you will find a government, businesses and many other organization. Every organization has a leader at the top and leaders at several levels below him or her, the hierarchy. The leaders at the top can and has to make decisions only he can make because he is the only one that can see the total picture. His decisions have far greater consequences than those in the level below, even though the decisions at all levels including executing tasks like selling and producing have to made too for an organization to survive. To make decisions get them executed requires power. Power is necessary, automatic as it comes with a position in the hierarchy. An organization without a functioning power structure is in chaos or anarchy.
Power has to be exercised responsibly. That implies that the power holder must consider what is best for the organization or part of it for which he is responsible. A leader that bases his decisions on what increases his power and salary the most will often make the decisions that are not in the interest of the company.
In my view power is a means to an end, to get done something useful. If power becomes an end in itself as the author recommends, it becomes addictive. There many examples in the book of the desire for power determining the action, regardless of a moral standard. Just one important example
The Board of Directors is legally responsible that the Chief Executive acts in the interest of the company as a whole and not in his own personal interests. What is the author's advice? On page 175 the case is described of a chief executive that engages a compensation consultant to prove that he was underpaid. This is a well-known trick. The chairman of the compensation committee of the board objected to the raise. The CEO won, and the CEO saw to it that the Chairman of the compensation left the board. The lesson of the author, " if you want to keep your position go along".
Of course this happens. Should the moral standard of a member of the board be to not say anything the Chef Executive does not like? Of course not. A board member that does not intervene when he becomes aware that the CEO was not acting in the interest of the company may be sued. If you want to know what a responsible board member would do, read, "Boards that deliver" by Ram Charan to get a second opinion.
This is just one example of the wrong advice. It would take many pages to describe all the recommendations that show dubious moral standards. Be warned, keep in mind the fate of ENRON with leaders that manipulated and aimed for power and wealth, one is still in prison.
The book is definitely helpful to leaders that decide on promotions to weed out the power-wealth driven manipulators. Here and there you can find useful ideas like in the section about networking and examples of taking initiatives.
A great deal of what the book describes is common sense, like do not tell your boss that he should stop getting angry. Read it with a critical mind, do not feel flattered when you read something you already knew and feel happy that the author agrees with you, remember that one lesson is you as a reader can never be flattered too much (p. 35), and most important, do not fall in the trap of becoming a power-addicted leader.