This article is a case study for The Law of Power N.1 “never outshine the master”, from Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power.
It also deals with other foundational laws of power, such as making friends instead of enemies, setting up collaborative frames instead of antagonist ones, and the importance of political intelligence within work-related teams.
Hubris Can Be Your Downfall
In a few instances in your life, you might have the power to lead groups.
And sometimes, you might even feel like you got the power to replace any leader above you and do a “power takeover”.
A power takeover happens when someone from a lower power position overthrows the leader and imposes himself as the new group’s leader.
However, more times than not, it’s more about the feeling and the hubris to challenge authority than actually having the power to do so.
And that’s how many driven men with an otherwise brilliant future end up crashing and burning.
People who fail to realize how dumb it is to challenge and embarrass their bosses reduce their political power.
This is exactly what happens in the example we will analyze.
Never Outshine The Master
The scene we analyze is from the movie Platoon.
This group has two different types of authority: the formal authority which is the lieutenant, called Wolfe, and the de facto authority, which is the sergeant, going by the name of Barnes.
The lieutenant has the official authority of rank.
The sergeant has the authority of subject matter expertise, meaning he is the expert on how to wage war.
Barnes is also aggressive and domineering, while the lieutenant is younger, more submissive, and looks the least confident of them all.
Thanks to his aggressiveness and knowledge, Barnes ends up controlling the group.
However, he makes one mistake.
Let’s watch the video:
The Mistake: Over-Dominance Makes Enemies
The mistake Barnes does is that he uses too much force to wield his power.
And that puts him on a collision course with Wolfe.
There is a quote from Alain Prost, a Formula 1 racer, and he said:
My aim is to win by going as slow as possible.
It’s similar for power.
You want to set up your interactions in a way that you can get people to follow you by using the least amount of brute force you need.
Why would you want to do that?
Because when you rely on brute force alone, you give you up the other form of influencing: the one based on people wanting to obey because of intrinsic motivation or because they admire you.
If you bellow orders like you are their Gods and they are ants, you will grow resentment while at the same time decreasing the goodwill.
The more that resentment grows, the more people will hate you and want to get rid of you.
Making The Boss Your Enemy is Dumb
This is what happens to Barnes.
He is the most dominant person in the group, that’s for sure.
But he made an enemy out of his boss. That’s a position that, for anyone, is hard to keep for a long time. Stung by the embarrassment, chances are high that the lieutenant will want to get rid of him on the first occasion.
Even within the group, Barnes’ position is not likely to be as strong following his display of dominance.
When he put himself against the lieutenant the group knows that Barnes has an enemy. And even if Wolfe is a weak enemy in terms of personality, is he a powerful one in terms of ranks.
And they know that the lieutenant might want to get rid of Barnes whenever he can -and that he can do it by virtue of his rank-.
This is a similar mistake that a few generals committed during the Obama administration. They got all haughty and mighty based on the troops they commanded but failed to realize they also needed the political support.
They got fired.
Keeping Good Boss Relationships
In this example, Barnes could have easily stayed the undisputed leader of the group and avoided any personal squabble with the lieutenant.
All he needed to do was to help the lieutenant save face.
How could he have done that?
For example, he could have prefaced his orders by saying
Barnes: if the LT agrees we do this, this and that
Then all he had to do was looking towards the LT expecting a nod or a “yes”.
Of course, Wolfe would have confirmed, he knew that Barnes was the most respected man, the most experienced one, and the one in the best position to decide.
Another option for Barnes was to give his orders and then look towards the Wolfe and ask him:
Barnes: Do you agree with it?
Most likely the lieutenant would have said yes.
Or if Wolfe was more emotionally intelligent, he could have asked a question back or added some perfunctory details just to seem like he wasn’t following 100%.
And that would have been OK: Barnes would have still been the leader. And the lieutenant would have probably been grateful that Barnes saved his face.
Barnes position in the group would have grown stronger, not weaker.
The group would know who’s the real leader while they would also know that Barnes has no enemy in the lieutenant, but a puppet who listens to him.
Huge power boost for power even within the group’s ranks.
Lessons Learned 1: Make Allies, Not Enemies
The problem of imposing your will, throwing your weight around and, even worst, going against official authorities, is that you make enemies.
The boss won’t say anything if he’s intimidated by you and he knows you’re stronger -as it was in the example from Platoon-.
But he will maneuver behind your back to torpedo you.
Similarly, if you impose your will within your group, you can rest assured resentment will raise.
They will keep following your orders because they have to, but they will be waiting for your downfall -and very happy to contribute to it-.
This is a common issue for many power-hungry, driven people.
They watch movies like The Godfather or Scarface and get heady believing that power is in destroying enemies.
But the real reason why people like Scarface crash and burn and people like The Godfather got successful is because the latter has made many more friends than enemies.
Make friends, not enemies: friends are power, enemies will be your downfall
Lesson Learned 2: Develop Competence
There are several reasons why lieutenant Wolfe was so easily jumped over, including typical submissive signs, younger age, and lack of confidence.
But the main one is that he was a green-horned, inexperienced fella who knew nothing. And Barnes was knowledgeable and competent on how to run war -or at least, he acted like it-.
This leads to our second lesson learned for strong leadership: you must develop competence and subject matter expertise.
Competence will give you the respect of the people who serve you.
When You Should NOT Be Inclusive
Inclusivity and democratic leadership can shore up your power by creating a web of alliances and by building goodwill.
But in a way, it’s similar to the concept of vulnerability as we talked about in “vulnerability is not power“.
The truth is that it inclusivity is powerful when used at the right times.
The rule of thumb is this: a powerful leader being inclusive is even more powerful while a weak leader being inclusive is perceived as even weaker.
And even when you are a powerful leader, there are important exceptions when you have to impose your will.
- At the beginning of your leadership
Especially for people who are too nice at the beginning of their leadership it’s best to err on the tough side than on the “nice” one. This is because, as we said, a strong leader who is inclusive is more powerful.
But if people have been perceiving you as weak and not possessing strong leadership qualities, then inclusivity can be seen as a sign of weakness, fear of taking decisions, and fear of telling people what to do.
It’s best to show strength in the beginning instead.
When you are a bit tougher at the beginning you can, later on, show that your inclusivity is out of magnanimity, not fear.
- When the group has no clue
One of the great advantages of inclusive leadership is that by including more people in the decision making you leverage the power of a larger mastermind and you are more likely to reach good decisions.
However, if the group or your counterpart has no idea on the subject, you are better off explaining your decision rather than asking for opinions.
That’s because you would most likely have to override all their suggestions and they might feel spurned and rejected. Avoid it by deciding, explaining and letting them grow into people who are worthy of being included. But they must earn that position.
- When the group is lost and is looking up to you
When the group is lost and they are looking up to you, that’s not the time to pose questions or being democratic. They are looking for leadership.
For strong leadership.
That’s the time to tell them what to do and show them the course of action.
And these are exactly the times that will buy you goodwill when things are going well.
- During times of crisis
Times of crisis require charismatic leadership and a strong leader.
The group will be more than happy to follow without being included.
- When you’re facing a challenge
When someone within the group or from outside the group is challenging deferring to the group or, worst of all, to the challenger, will be perceived as a sign of weakness by both the group and the challenger.
When facing a leadership challenge it’s time to put your foot down and show why you’re the leader. And you must eradicate that challenge.
Basically, here is the power move rule when it comes to inclusivity:
Always be inclusive when things are easy and decisions matter little.
Take full reins of command when things are uncertain and when you need to shore up power during a leadership challenge.
When It’s OK to Do a Power Takeover
A power takeover is fine… As long as you can pull it off effectively.
Do it effectively, here is what needs to happen:
- You can completely get rid of your boss
- The group supports your takeover
- Those in power above your boss are likely to accept the situation
- Your boss is in no position to take revenge
Ideally, you are taking the power from a leader who was ineffective, incompetent, or hated.
That’s the example I talk about in “how to destroy a bad boss“, and if you can rally the troops in your support and put enough power on your side, you will be welcome as the savior.
Just make sure you act the part of the savior once you’re in charge and don’t become little tyrant N.2 (or little incompetent N.2 :).
As a rule of thumb, inclusive leadership will make people want to follow you.
And that’s the hallmark of great leadership: when people want you as the leader and they want to follow you.
You can’t always be inclusive of course.
But whenever you can, that should be your goal.
The worst possible person you can leave out of the decision making is your boss. Whenever you jump in front of your boss, that’s the definition of a golpe.
And whenever you execute a golpe, there is only one good way to do it: by taking out the leader, eliminating his power to take revenge, and taking his position.
Any other option, sooner or later, is likely to end badly for you.
See more examples here: