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

In Power Jeffrey Pfeffer explains why learning power dynamics is crucial to life success and teaches readers how to acquire power with tips and career strategies on topics such as networking, self-development, reputation management, how to act and speak with power, and coping with opposition and setbacks.

Exec Summary

  • Power is good for your health because it prevents anxiety and feelings of helplessness. Conversely, not having power is bad for your health because it creates more anxiety and feelings of helplessness
  • Power is necessary to get things done even if, and maybe especially if, you want to do something good
  • You can’t escape power dynamics because hierarchies are intrinsic to human nature, and many want to move upward


About the Author:
Jeffrey Pfeffer is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.
According to Wikipedia, he received his BS and MS degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and his Ph.D. from Stanford University.

Power Is Healthy, Low-Power Is A Health Hazard (Literally)


Why should you want power?

It turns out, power is important also for the “I’m not interested in power” type of folks.
And it’s for the same reason why you’d want to eat healthier, rather than unhealthy: having power is related to living a longer and healthier life.

A study of 7372 British civil servants showed that the lower the rank or civil service grade, the higher the age-adjusted mortality risk.
Of course other health markers also mattered, but smoking, cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity, and physical activity only accounted for a quarter of the variance.
What did matter, implies the author, was power and status—things that provided people greater control over their work environments.
Pfeffer says that job control and status accounted for more of the variation in mortality from heart disease than physiological factors such as obesity and blood pressure.

Albeit that’s quite something if you think about it, the author makes a good point that it shouldn’t be surprising, since a lack of control over one’s environment produces feelings of helplessness and stress.

Summarizes the author:

So being in a position with low power and status is indeed hazardous to your health, and conversely, having power and the control that comes with it prolongs life

Seek Power As If Life Your Life Depends On It

The link between power and health is what motivates the author to end with what’s probably the most famous and memorable quote of Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t:

So seek power as if your life depends on it.
Because it does.

You Can’t Escape Power Dynamics: Hierarchies Are Inherent to Human Nature

The author says that there is evidence that it’s impossible to create organizations “free of power dynamics”.

The reason is biological: power hierarchies are ubiquitous in animal societies, and those animals, humans included, are hard-wired to want to move up.

Not only hierarchies are ubiquitous to any social animal, but:

  1. People naturally create hierarchies from scratch: when people expected to interact on a task, particularly when task performance was important, they voluntarily constructed differences in hierarchy (Tiedens, 2007)
  2. People naturally support hierarchies, even at their individual cost, Jost’s research shows that people voluntarily contribute to their own disempowerment to maintain a stable hierarchical social order (Jost, 1994)
  3. Status overlaps across hierarchies, and the status one achieves in one hierarchy tends to translate and spill over to others (several studies, including Berger, 1998)

Status Generalizes Over Different Environments

In the small pond syndrome, a staple article of this website, we made the case that some people fall prey to unhealthy “status obsession” within social circles.

The syndrome means that status and social circles become all-consuming for these people, and that leaves them like fishes out of the water when, eventually, the social circle dissolves or when they’re forced to exit it.

Pfeffer later in the book confirms that’s indeed the case for many but, it turns out, there is a silver lining.
The silver lining is that, says the author, status in one specific social circle often carries over to new ones.

Says the author:

Status, however derived, tends to generalize across the environments in which we interact.
One implication of this phenomenon for you is that the specific organization or domain in which you rise to power may matter less than the fact that you manage to achieve high-level status someplace.

The author mostly refers to workplaces though, and the examples are of very high level positions where your previous history is known far beyond your specific organization.
So, for example, if you were an exec at a major corporation, you will be an exec even at a new corporation and, often, even if you move to a different industry.

I still believe part of the concept applies outside of work, but mostly because of the confidence and the power skills that you acquire in climbing any hierarchy.
Since those skills are pretty much similar in any other hierarchy, once you have the skills, you can quickly enter and skyrocket upwards in any new group -especially newly forming ones-.

Rule of Power #1: Play, Or Lose By Default

I loved this story.

It’s a real-life cautionary tale of how naive people eventually meet their downfall when they ignore power dynamics and personality’s red flags:

Not long after I joined the board, in the midst of an upgrading in management talent, the CEO hired a new chief financial officer, Chris.
Chris was an ambitious, hardworking, articulate individual who had big plans for the company—and himself.
Chris asked Bob to make him chief operating officer. Bob agreed. Chris asked to join the board of directors. Bob agreed. I could see what was coming next, so I cal ed Bob and said, “Chris is after your job.”
Bob’s reply was that he was only interested in what was best for the company, would not stoop to playing politics, and thought that the board had seen his level of competence and integrity and would do the right thing.
You can guess how this story ended—Bob’s gone, Chris is the CEO.

Chris behaved like a driven asshole. There are many like him near the top.
But the guy who was on top, Bob, was too naive to stand up to him.
And what’s even more telling is how people reacted:

What was interesting was the conference call in which the board discussed the moves.
Although there was much agreement that Chris’s behavior had been inappropriate and harmful to the company, there was little support for Bob.
If he was not going to put up a fight, no one was going to pick up the cudgel on his behalf.

It’s Your Responsibility to Learn Power Dynamics

If you remain naive to power dynamics, you often lose out.
and you don’t just lose out to any random folk, you often lose out to the dark triad folks who are far worse than you at your job -and far worse for everyone else-.

Says the author on the responsibility of learning power dynamics:

Stop waiting for things to get better or for other people to acquire power and use it in a benevolent fashion to improve the situation. It’s up to you to find—or create—a better place for yourself. And it’s up to you to build your own path to power.

Also read:

The Leadership Literature Is Misleading: Avoid It

The moment I reached this paragraph, I knew the book was going to be great.

Says the author:

Most books by well-known executives and most lectures and courses about leadership should be stamped CAUTION: THIS MATERIAL CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL SURVIVAL. That’s because leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.

And on naive self-help, he adds:

the teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptions about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying or abusive way—in short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved.
Most CEOs are not the level 5 leaders described by Jim Col ins in Good to Great as helping to take companies up the performance curve—individuals who are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy,” who get the best out of employees by not soaking up al the limelight and making al the decisions.

You should be particularly cautious of CEOs and leaders writing their own books because:

  1. Leaders may believe their own lies: leaders such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani or former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, writing books and articles about themselves, may believe they are being inspirational and even truthful
  2. You only hear half the story, told by those in power, those who won. You don’t get to hear much from those they beat to get there -and how they did it-
  3. The “winner bias”, with many associating success to “goodness” and choosing to see and remember the most positive stories and traits

And, we add:

  • Outright lies to come across as “good”

The author glosses over though the most obvious reason why those leadership books may be misleading: that the people writing them may simply be lying.
Or using them as self-promotion material
Says the author himself:

But leaders are great at self-presentation, at telling people what they think others want to hear, and in coming across as noble and good.

We can’t agree more.
Also see our list of the best leadership resources:

Political Savvy & Will to Power Advance Careers

Politically savvy and seeking power matter when it comes to career success.

Surprisingly though, it also matters when it comes to performance.

One study by the Harvard Business Review divided 50 managers based on their need for affiliation, achievement, and power. It was the managers primarily interested in power who most effective in achieving positions of influence inside companies, as well as in accomplishing their jobs.
My Note:
50 managers is a very small number to draw any strong conclusion.

Another study with 509 participants showed that managers who scored higher in political skills received higher performance evaluations and were rated as more effective leaders.

Also see:

Performance Matters Less Than You Think

Performance coupled with political skills that gets you up the ranks.

Performance as in “delivering” and “adding value” matters of course.
But, by itself performance is not enough. It’s “seldom sufficient”, says the author and, in some cases, may also not be necessary.
Jeffrey Pfeffer indeed aptly titles the first chapter of Power “It Takes More Than Performance”.

The author provides examples of performance being “awarded” with a pink slip, and poor performance not getting any negative consequences -or, sometimes, even big bonuses-.
If you’re not yet at the top, your relationship with your boss matters more than your performance:

The lesson from cases of people both keeping and losing their jobs is that 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.

In my job experience in large companies, that’s largely true.
In smaller companies and startups, your output matters relatively more though, especially if you’re in sales or revenue-generating roles.

Pfeffer summarizes his stance saying:

Not only doesn’t good performance guarantee you wil maintain a position of power, poor performance doesn’t mean you wil necessarily lose your job.

And he then provides some data:

  • Your manager’s decision in your hiring significantly impacts your performance appraisals on a study analyzing the performance appraisal ratings of 354 clerical employees working in the public sector (Schoorman, 1988)
    My Note: this particularly study offers no evidence of personal choice being superior to job performance
    Albeit the author says that the manager’s preferences in your hiring mattered more than performance, we cannot safely jump to that conclusion from this study -also see the “criticism” section-.
  • Age and organizational tenure mattered more than job performance when it comes to salaries (Medoff, 1980)
  • Performance ratings of “very good” were only 12 percent more likely to be promoted than colleagues rated “good” in a white-collar workers analysis (Dohmen’s, 2004)
  • Managers looked at job tenure, educational credentials, and overtime work, not just performance, when it comes to deciding internal mobility, a study of more than 200 employees from a variety of companies showed (Carmeli, 2007)
  • Productivity was weakly tied to performance ratings, and educational credentials mattered more for promotions, even if they weren’t the best employees as data analysis from the Department of Defense Civilian Personnel Data Files showed (Spyropoulos’ master thesis, 2005)

Summarizing the research literature, Pfeffer concludes:

Extensive research on promotions in organizations, with advancement measured either by changes in position, increases in salary, or both, also reveals the modest contribution of job performance in accounting for the variation in what happens to people.

Or, to put it more simply: “the data shows that performance doesn’t matter that much”.

The same is true for CEOs:

  • CEOs who presided over three straight years of poor performance and led their firms into bankruptcy only faced a 50 percent chance of losing their jobs, and power mattered more than their performance on whether they kept their job (Gilson, 1989)

Concludes the author on the “performance VS politics” question:

Performance does affect job tenure and its obverse, getting fired, but again the effects are smal

Politics may matter even more for executives:

  • Executives turnover was more affected by CEO changes than by performance, shows a study of the top five executive positions in almost 450 companies (Fee, 2004)

Executives change the most during CEO changes, probably because the new CEOs appoint loyalists as executives.

To Advance, Get Noticed

Most leaders in your company don’t have complete visibility and knowledge about everyone in the organization.

So even if you do great work, they may never know about it.

So it’s important that you promote your contribution, promote yourself, and become known.

Also see:

Avoid becoming the “foundation guy” (focus on “recall” instead)

The foundation guy is:

The guy who does the foundational work, but who, just like a building’s foundations, is completely out of sight.

People only realize how important he is when he leaves, but by then it’s too late to reap any benefits for your work -and for your leverage-.

in our “visibility matrix” the “foundation guy” does important, but invisible work:

Some people also become the foundational guy with the “heads down work approach”, or by focusing on their work only, without every getting any attention.
That’s a major political mistake, say the author.
Pfeffer exhorts readers to focus on getting attention instead, because good work isn’t enough. Just like in advertising the main performance indicator is “ad recall”, so you should focus on being known and remembered.

The 3 Obstacles On Your Path to Power

  1. Thinking the world is a just place (belief): and that “people get what they deserve”, either in positive, or negative. But the “just world hypothesis” is wrong: the world is not a just place. You must be proactive in building your power base
    1. Contribution is always rewarded: the mistaken belief that good people and/or good work will be rewarded, and that if you take care of delivering value, then you’ll automatically reap the rewards. Delivering value is crucial to advance in life but, per se, may not be enough. Political skills and power awareness are equally important
    2. Bad behavior eventually catches up (karma): not necessarily. Sometimes bad people win. And sometimes people who added little or no value, or even who took value, may advance -and overtake you-
  2. Naive leadership literature (misguided available resources): the leadership literature is naive self-help, based on the false assumption that the world is a just place, and ignoring the real-world power dynamics we learn here
  3. Yourself & your psychological defenses (fragile ego): many people don’t even try, or give up way too soon. That’s often because they want to avoid the emotional pain of a loss

We fully agree and highly recommend this article on naive self-help:

The 7 Personal Qualities That Bring Influence

  1. Will
    1. Ambition
    2. Energy
    3. Focus, including an ability to prioritize and assign more focus and energy on the most critical activities
  2. Skills
    1. Self-knowledge & reflective mindset, to understand where you need to work on and how to adjust
    2. Confidence, and the ability to project self-assurance
    3. Empathy, as in the ability to read others and empathize with their point of view
    4. Conflict tolerance, or you fail to be assertive and too easily fall for the aggressive power moves that put conflict-avoidant and more submissive folks on the retreat

Intelligence, says the author, is instead often overrated.
The failure of intelligence to explain much variance in “who gets ahead” lead to the idea of multiple types of intelligence. That’s a rather controversial claim though, and the author mentions emotional intelligence, which also doesn’t seem to be a great predictor of work success.

My Note: emotional intelligence only serves you if coupled with power awareness, drive, and Machiavellianism
At TPM, we analyzed that same issue and up with our own construct of the type of intelligence that matters most.
And that’s power intelligence, the type of intelligence that allows you to understand the power dynamics, the political landscape, your leverage, and to come up with the most appropriate Machiavellian strategies.

Read more on power intelligence:

Confidence and self-assurance

Says the author:

In making decisions about how much power and deference to accord others, people are natural y going to look to the other’s behavior for cues. Because power is likely to cause people to behave in a more confident fashion, observers wil associate confident behavior with actual y having power. Coming across as confident and knowledgeable helps you build influence.

The author says you can learn it, something we agree wholeheartedly with (and it’s also a good part of what we teach here at TPM).
Also see:

Confidence For Women

Showing confidence seems often to be a particular issue for women, who are socialized to be deferential and less assertive. But that behavior causes problems.

Read more here:

Strategically Choose Your Field of Work & Starting Position

The author shows that there are trends in the background of those who reach the top.

And the general rule is that the higher position more frequently goes to those who rose through the ranks of the higher power departments.

However, those “in-vogue” departments may be higher competition, and since there are trends in which departments and functions are higher power, the smartest strategic choice is to look at what may be trending in the future, and then find a niche there with less competition.

He says:

if you want to move up quickly, go to underexploited niches where you can develop leverage with less resistance and build a power base in activities that are going to be more important in the near future than they are today.

That’s easier said than done, of course.
So here are some tips on how to spot the higher power departments:

What Confers Department Power

  • Unit cohesion: speaking with one voice, being able to act together in a coordinated fashion.
    That’s why the military evaluates leaders in part on the cohesion of their units (also see this case study of military leadership manipulation) and why coaches of team sports work so hard to build unity of action and purpose
    Example: at Ford’s finance function, socialization rituals served the same function as training in the military for the company’s young, up-and-coming executives building common bonds of communication and trust that come through shared experiences
  • Critical resources: as per social exchange dynamics, those who provide the most value, also have more power. Critical resources in organizations include money, skills, or the ability to solve critical organizational problems
    Evolution: in the beginning of the 1900s entrepreneurs held the CEO positions, then manufacturing and production became the most common backgrounds for corporate leaders because solving production and engineering issues were the most critical tasks) Starting in the 1920s and into the 1930s, CEOs came from marketing and sales because selling, rather than producing, became a more important challenge. Finally, beginning in the 1960s CEOs came out of finance because of the capital markets growing importance and shareholder as the most important measure of organizational success (Fligstein, 1987)

Since resources are important for power, when it comes to choosing your role, choose positions that have greater direct resource control of more budget or staff.

How to Recognize The Higher Power Department

If you’re not sure about which department is higher power and more influential, here are some good indicators:

  1. Relative pay, both starting salaries and the pay of more senior positions
  2. Physical location and facilities, being close to those in power both signals power and provides power through ease of access and, most likely, increased contacts
  3. Positions in committees and senior management cadre. Such as who, besides the CEO, is the insider most likely to serve on a company’s board of directors

Focus More On Power, Less On “Being Liked”

Don’t discount being liked: it’s better to be liked, than disliked.

However, not at the cost of being respected, and always choose power over being liked.

When Machiavelli said that if you have to choose between being liked or feared, be feared, he anticipated 500 years of social psychology research (Machiavelli, 1532).
In business, fear may not be the best strategy, but a reputation for toughness may help.

For example:

  • Negative reviewers come across as more intelligent, competent, and expert than positive reviewers, even when independent experts judged the negative reviews to be of no higher quality (Amabile, 1983)
  • Niceness frequently comes across as weakness or even a lack of intelligence, even though nice people come across as “warm” (Cuddy, 2009)

Says the author:

if you have to choose between being seen as likable and fitting in on the one hand or appearing competent albeit abrasive on the other, choose competence.

But of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and “powerful” doesn’t mean “unlikeable”.
As a matter of fact, as the author says, likability may create power, but power also creates likability as well as attracting people. People want to be close to powerful and successful people, after all.

The author then goes into the stereotype content model, something that is also foundational to this website.
Our “power & warmth” high-level approach is also based on that:

Strategic Anger Displays

Some examples:

  • Anger can make you seem dominant, strong, competent, and smart, although of course, also as less nice and warm (Tiedens, 2001)
  • People expect high-status people to be more angry than sad or guilty when in negative situations (Tiedens, 2000)
  • People expect low-status people to feel sad or guilty instead of angry in the same negative situations

Summarizes the author:

If you express anger, not only do you receive more status and power and appear more competent but others are reluctant to cross you

Being Nice As Power Move

Being nice to people is effective because people find it difficult to fight with those who are being polite and courteous.

Learn Networking Skills, Grow & Use Your Network

Independently of your job, the evidence shows that networking is important for people’s careers.

Hence, says the author, everyone can benefit from improving their networking skills and developing better social networks.

Wolff and Moser define “networking” as:

Behaviors that are aimed at building, maintaining, and using informal relationships that possess the (potential) benefit of facilitating work-related activities of individuals by voluntarily gaining access to resources and maximizing advantages.

Their study on more than 200 people in Germany divided networking behavior between internal/external and building/using, and successful networkers do all four of them:

  1. Building internal contacts (e.g., “I use company events to make new contacts.”) 2. Maintaining internal contacts (e.g., “I catch up with colleagues from other departments about what they are working on.”)
  2. Using internal contacts (e.g., “I use my contacts with colleagues in other departments in order to get confidential advice in business matters.”) 4. Building external contacts (e.g., “I accept invitations to official functions or festivities out of professional interest.”)
  3. Maintaining external contacts (e.g., “I ask others to give my regards to business acquaintances outside of our company.”)
  4. Using external contacts (e.g., “I exchange professional tips and hints with acquaintances from other organizations.”)

Develop Many Good Relationships: It’s More Effective Than Few, Deep Relationships

What connections matter the most in networking?

Surprisingly, it’s weak ties that bring the most benefits when it comes to work and career (Granovetter, 1973).
The reason is that strong, which are family, friends, and close associates with frequent interactions, often travel in the same circles and have similar knowledge and similar opportunities to offer.

Weak ties instead are more likely to link you to new people, organizations, information, and opportunities.

However, for weak ties to work, they must be able to link you, and willing to do so.
So it’s important that you network with high-value people who can open doors for you, and that you have good enough relationships and make a good enough impression, that they will want to.

Hence, an optimal networking strategy, says the author, is to:

know a lot of different people from different circles, have multiple organizational affiliations in a variety of different industries and sectors that are geographically dispersed, but not necessarily to know the people well or to develop close ties with them

Be At The Center Of Your Networks

Your influence and career trajectory depend a lot on your network position.

And, generally speaking, the more central you are, the better it is.
Says the author:

If virtual y al information and communication flows through you, you wil have more power. One source of your power wil be your control over the flow of information, and another is that people attribute power to individuals who are central.

To assess your centrality, look at how many come to you first, and how much communication flows through you.

Become A “Relationship Broker” Bridging Different Networks & People

People tend to cluster with those who are similar to them.

This creates a great opportunity for “social chameleon” who can get along with many different people and groups:

infographic for the concept of "relationship broker"

University of Chicago business school professor Roland Burt calls this network approach “bridging the structural holes”.
Says the author:

The fundamental idea is deceptively simple: by connecting units that are tightly linked internally but socially isolated from each other, the person doing the connecting can profit by being the intermediary who facilitates interactions between the two groups

The author says that the number of structural holes an individual bridges positively affects promotions, salary, and organizational level.
Also, the author warns that it’s a false myth and belief that being close to a networks’ linchpin gives you similar benefits: Burt found out that just being one step away from the connector’s role brought virtually no benefits.

Strategic Resource Allocation: How Much Should You Devote to Networking?

Yes, networking brings benefits, but it also requires time and effort and, hence, has a cost.

How much you should spend on networking also depends on your role, and your goals.
The author says:

You should decide how much time to spend and your specific networking strategy based on the extent to which your job requires building social relationships for you to be successful (…) and the type of knowledge most useful in your job.

There are two types of knowledge and they need different networking strategies (Hansen, 2001):

  • Explicit and codified benefit from many weak ties, information that can be shared easily and readily with diagrams, formulas, or “recipes” is easier to transmit and requires less effort, hence you don’t need major social capital to get people to help you
  • Implicit and tacit need close ties, because knowledge of, say, a good clinician who understands not only the science but also when to do what, needs time and effort to share, so you need more social capital for people to want to teach you

In product development for innovation, where the type of information required is almost impossible to specify in advance, many weak ties were most useful because a large network allowed product development teams to explore broadly for helpful information.
Product development projects using existing competencies and information that could mostly be anticipated benefited instead with a smaller network to get the product out the door more quickly.

Speak & Act With Power

It’s easier and more effective to both develop a network and make the most out of it, if people hold you in high regard.

Says the author:

Both in the process of creating social ties and once you have created a network, your ability to create and leverage social ties depends in part on how others perceive you. And those perceptions depend in part on your ability to speak and act with power.

We have great resources here on TPM on that:

The author also touches upon frames and frame control here, albeit never calling it that way and referring to it instead as “who sets the rules of the interaction”.

How to Handle Opposition

Anything worthwhile you’ll be trying to achieve, there will be competition and some opposition along the way.

But albeit the author previously extolled the virtues of power over warmth, now instead he warns against too much power and dominance:

  • Use some tenderness: people meet force with force (psychological reactance, Jack Brehm) and while steamrolling may work with some, most people will seek to push back and react to your attempts to overpower them as they seek to maintain their power and autonomy. So, instead, treat your opponents well
  • Power protect and leave people a graceful out: this is what Dale Carnegie first labeled “save people face” and what we call here “power protecting
    • Give them a good deal to quit, and say nice things about them
  • Win them over to your side: coopt them and make them a part of your team or organization by giving them a stake in the current system (we call this “aligning incentives” here)
  • Outplace them: get them a better job somewhere else where they will not be underfoot, or give them a good deal to exit
  • Focus on the data: that way, people cannot take things personally, or blame you for any decision that goes against them

From a mindset point of view:

  • Don’t take things personally, make important relationships work

Don’t let your ego or personal preferences stand in the way of getting things done.
Sometimes you may not like someone, but if you need them to accomplish your goals, so what. Work with them anyway.

Gary Loveman’s advice: after you reach a certain level, there comes a point in your career where you simply have to make critical relationships work. Your feelings, or for that matter, others’ feeling about you, don’t matter. To be successful, you have to get over resentments, jealousies, anger, or anything else that might get in the way of building a relationship where you can get the resources necessary for you to get the job done.

Also read on growth mindset and the antifragile ego:

  • Don’t let the battles make you lose sight of your final goal:

You need to continually ask yourself, “What would victory look like? If you had won the battle, what would you want that win to encompass?” People lose sight of what their highest priorities are and get diverted fighting other battles that then cause unnecessary problems

Sometimes, you can be disempowered in the short term, but still reach your final goal -and it’s only at the end that you measure your success and power-.

Stay Upbeat During Turmoil: Nobody Wants to Help Losers

Remember that people want to associate with winners and want to avoid losers.

So it’s important to behave and look like a strong winner, even if you feel like a loser at some points in your life:

Situations are often ambiguous. Did you resign or were you fired? Was your previous job experience successful or not? One of the ways others are going to ascertain how things turned out is by how you present yourself. Are you upbeat? Do you project power and success or the reverse? This is why developing the ability to act in ways that you may not feel at the moment is such an important skill .
You want to convey that everything is fine and under your control, even under dire circumstances

That is the best way to get over the difficult time, and attract some help and support.
Says the author, with an intuitive grasp of social exchanges:

This advice does not mean that you should not tell people what happened and enlist their aid. It does mean you need to show enough strength and resilience that your potential allies wil not believe their efforts to help you wil be wasted

Leaders: Make Your Goals Seem Compelling (& “Good”)

We totally agree with the author here:

Your path to power is going to be easier if you are aligned with a compelling, socially valuable objective.

It doesn’t mean you have to lie, says the author, but that “to the extent you can associate your efforts with a social y desirable, compel ing value, you increase your likelihood of success”.

Higher objectives must not be saving animals or forestalling global warming, and some may think, it can simply be a goal or a generally held value that is beside your own self-interest.
For example, scheming CEOs and executives do it often in the name of “shareholders value”:

Power struggles inside companies seldom seem to revolve around blatant self-interest. At the moment of crisis and decision, clever combatants customarily invoke “shareholders’ interests.” As in, “It would be in the shareholders’ interests to have a new CEO,” or a “new board member,” or for that matter, new executives in other senior roles.

Of course, the two things must also not necessarily be mutually exclusive: you can do well for shareholders or for your “higher goal”, while also doing well for yourself.
Says the author of Gary Loveman’s work at Harrah:

Loveman is sincere and he has certainly delivered for the shareholders (…)
But this talk about shareholder sovereignty is also a framing that works to portray his power at the gaming company in a social y desirable and acceptable fashion

The Costs of Power

It’s generally better to have power, than not to have it.

When Andreotti, a highly skilled politician that Robert Greene pegged as “the most Machiavellian Italian politician of modern times” was asked if “power wears you out”, he replied that “yes, it wears out those who don’t have it”.

However, there are some costs to power.
The author lists:

  1. Visibility and public scrutiny holding a position of power means that more than your job performance is being careful y watched
    1. Fear of taking risks: Under the pressure to “look good,” people and companies are reluctant to take risks or innovate, opting to do what seems safe
  2. Loss of autonomy: with more demands and obligations on your time
  3. Time and effort: building and maintaining power requires time and effort. Time that you cannot spend on other things, such as hobbies or personal relationships and families.
    The costs are higher for women, says the author
  4. Trust issues: the higher you rise, the greater the number of people who want something from you -including your job-. Consequently, holding a position of great power creates a problem: who do you trust?
    1. Distort reality & absence of critical thought, as more people around you turn into “ys-men” and shield you away from important truths and feebdack
  5. Addictiveness of power: power can be addictive both psychologically and physically, with many people who experienced depression and physical symptoms when they stepped down a high-power position (no matter how much money they had)

Overconfidence & Falls From Grace

Yes, power can corrupt.

And the effects of power corruption can make you lose power.

It’s not (necessarily) only a literal “corruption”, it can be a moral, behavioral, and psychological corruption that can come back to bite you, and cause your downfall.
The changes include:

power produces overconfidence and risk taking, insensitivity to others, stereotyping, and a tendency to see other people as a means to the power holder’s gratification

Research has shown that giving power to people made them feel superior to those they were supervising and wanted to distance themselves from those less powerful -and that even though in this experimental study the supervisor was randomly determined and temporary-.

That is dangerous because if you let power corrupt you to the point that you start mistreating others, you make more enemies that will want to undermine you and disempower you.

Says the author:

Overconfidence and insensitivity lead to losing power, as people become so full of themselves that they fail to attend to the needs of those whose enmity can cause them problems. Conversely, not letting power go to your head and acting as if you were al -powerful can help you maintain your position.

Also, you want to retain empathy and sensitivity because they help you both make and keep friends and allies, and remain alert to the politics and power dynamics around you.
Talking about the risks of being too direct and not power protecting enough, the author says:

Having a position of formal authority or even being right is not going to win you the support of those whose mistakes you have called out. It is tough for those in power to see the world from others’ perspectives—but if you are going to survive, you need to get over yourself and your formal position and retain your sensitivity to the political dynamics around you

A tip the author shares to “keep your head” is to expose yourself to social circles that know nothing about you and where you’re not as high power.

To recap, the dangers of power are that you:

  • Treat others poorly and make enemies: power corrupts your character and you feel superior and start seeing others as inferior and “deserving of poor behavior”
  • Grow overconfident in your hold to power and lose sight of the possible machinations that others are setting up to dethrone you
    • Grow overconfident in others and trust the wrong people
power by Jeffrey Pfeffer book cover


Make yourself unique in the team

A smaller-seeming power play, but that can make the difference.
Says Pfeffer in one of his mini-case studies:

Success began with preparation. While most of her compatriots took the entrepreneurial classes offered in the business school, Anne took a class in the engineering school on starting new ventures. With that one move she altered the power dynamics and her bargaining leverage.
In the business school class, there were about three MBAs for every engineer, while in the engineering school course, there was only about one MBA for every four engineers.

“Uniqueness” is valid at many levels.
Since the engineers could develop products but needed business-savvy folks for business plans, she put more negotiating power in her corner.
But Anne was also one of the few women there, and the only woman in the group she eventually chose.

You must tailor to your culture, environment, organization

Many authors and pundits like to dispense catch-all advice and prepare “lists of power laws“.

But that doesn’t work, says Pfeffer:

Not all organizations have identical political cultures, and not al individuals are the same, either.
Unfortunately, we live in a world in which much of the management advice proffered is presented as universally true. And unfortunately, many people are looking for simple, universal formulas for action that wil work equally wel in all circumstances.
How you behave and what you should do needs to fit your particular circumstances—the organizational situation and also your own personal values and objectives.

Also, remember that we live in a world with little certitudes and 1:1 causal links.
Instead, we live in a world of probabilities.
So your task is to always choose the course of action with the highest probability of winning.

Asking Works: So Ask More

The author uses several examples to show that asking for mentorship and/or help, works.

At worst, he says, you get a no, which has little downsides anyway.

And he then points to a few studies showing that people find it uncomfortable to ask and underestimate the likelihood of others helping and wanting to help.

People also underestimate what’s in it for the people granting the help.
For example, in many cases, people feel good being asked (it sub-communicates they can give, a high power position to be in), people feel good when they can help, and they will also gain if you turn out to be a grateful ally.

Encourage Others to Follow The Rule If You Got Power, But Find Alternatives If You Don’t

People with power generally set the rules that benefit them.
If you play by the rules, you will hardly reach the top -especially not while those who set the rules are still there-.

if you have all the power you want or need, by all means not only follow the rules but encourage everyone else to do so too. But if you are still traversing your path to power, take all this conventional wisdom and “rule-fol owing” stuff with a big grain of salt

Organizations Don’t Care About You

Towards the end of the book Pfeffer deals with some ethical questions, including:

Isn’t it bad for the organization if we play all these power games?

And, he says, you sholdn’t ask yourself that, because organizations don’t care about you anyway.
Also read:

Grow Comfortable With Power: Both Wielding It, And Accepting It

There are two common issues people have with power:

  • Cannot accept that others may have power over them, which makes it difficult for them to fit in, grow, acquire status and power. And it makes it difficult for them to have good relationships with their bosses, which is crucial to doing well
  • Struggle with having power over others, and wielding it, which makes it difficult for them to acquire leadership positions, holding onto them. And, if by sheer luck they become leaders, they often make for poor leaders

And finally, once you’re ready to lead:

As A Leader / Founder, Keep Politics to A Minimum

Politics are normal, but that doesn’t mean they’re good.

Indeed, research shows that high levels of perceived politics lead to job dissatisfaction, low morale, less commitment, and higher intentions to quit.

It does seem though that it’s possible to create an organization with lower levels of (perceived) politics, but unluckily, the author doesn’t investigate whether it’s possible to have lower level of politics.

Real-Life Tips

As Your Hiring Condition, Ask For A Periodical Dinner With The Department’s Head

Man, what a genius move this was.
Goes straight to Power University.
Here’s the example from Keith Ferrazzi, later turned social networking consultant and author of “Never Eat Alone” (told by Loconto himself, and redacted for brevity):

Ferrazzi had offers from McKinsey and Deloitte.
Ferrazzi insisted on seeing the “head guys,” as he called them.
Loconto met Keith at an Italian restaurant in New York City, and “after we had a few drinks at this restaurant, Keith said he would accept the offer on one condition—he and I would have dinner once a year at the same restaurant…. So I promised to have dinner with him once a year, and that’s how we recruited him. That was one of his techniques. That way, he was guaranteed access to the top.

Pretty smart indeed.

Pretend to Take The Idiots Seriously: Fools Are Still Better On Your Side Than Against You

This part was really Machiavellian smart to survive in more political organizations where you need support and support to remain in power:

in a visible position such as university president, everybody—students, faculty, alumni, citizens, staff—has an opinion about what you could be better, and many feel free to share their views with you and with the public. Many of these people don’t know what they are talking about and take time (…). After a while, it is easy to lose patience and lash out at the sorry fools—except, as Maidique thoughtfully noted, some of these “sorry fools” can cost you your position.

Maidique was the second longest-serving research university president in the United States, and to successfully remain in his position, he learned the political skills needed for it -including keeping his composure with the sorry fools-.


A strong reminder of how your behavior affects your credibility:

Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken.

Peter Ueberroth

On the role of “deception” in leadership:

part of it is self-discipline and part of it is deception. And the deception becomes reality. Deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. But after a while, if you act confident, you become more confident. So the deception becomes less of a deception

Andy Grove

On self-deprecating humor only working if you already have a good and established reputation:

Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.

Golda Meir

Commenting on John Gardner who told people that it was their right to opposite him, but that they will have to face the consequences:

If using power in this way seems tough, it may be. But get over your inhibitions, because many of the people you wil meet on your path to power wil have less hesitation about rewarding their friends and punishing those who oppose them.

On the dog-eat-dog nature of power struggles:

Therefore, for CEOs to survive in their jobs, they need to be able to discern who is undermining them and be tough enough to remove those people before they themselves lose the power struggle. What’s true for CEOs is also true for other senior-level executives with ambitious subordinates.

On choosing a graceful exit over holding on until it’s too late:

It is both possible and desirable to, as my wife nicely puts it, “leave before the party’s over” and to do so in a way that causes others to remember you fondly. You cannot always completely control how much power you maintain, but you can leave your position with dignity and thereby influence your legacy.

On companies being undemocratic and power in the hands of few despite devolution working better and “The Wisdom of Crowds” showing that decision-making by many is superior to decision-making by the few (something I’m not convinced, by the way):

inside companies democracy is the exception. In spite of many studies showing the superior performance achieved through delegating decision-making authority, little devolution of power has occurred inside companies in the last 50 years


Some studies were low-powered

For example, David Schoorman study only had 9 managers under one of their conditions (the condition of “not chosen by the hiring manager”).

Sometimes the author jumped to conclusions that the study didn’t warrant

For example, the author downplays the role of performance.
But in Dohmen’s study that the author cites, the paper’s abstract clearly states that “performance ratings determine how fast a worker climbs the firm’s career and wage ladder”, which doesn’t quite square off with the author’s stance that performance matters little.

In Gilson’s study of CEO, the authors conclude that “evidence is consistent with managers incurring significant personal costs when their firms become financially distressed”.
Again, the opposite of what the author implies saying that CEO performance matters little.

And with David Schoorman‘s study, the author concludes:

What this research means is that job performance matters less for your evaluation than your supervisor’s commitment to and relationship with you.

That’s a big claim, so I checked the research.
And it’s not exactly what the researchers claim.
They say instead:

Its significance can be illustrated by the observation that the escalation biases accounted for more variance in performance appraisals than did the measure of clerical ability used to select employees into these jobs.
The clerical ability test is a statistically (and legally) valid employment test in this organization

The authors of the research didn’t measure job performance.
The only measure of performance was at the time of hiring, a very different measure.

Unluckily, this made me lose quite some trust in the author’s conclusions.
A colossal blunder, in my opinion: Power is a fantastic book that tells it as it is, that has plenty of both evidence and logic to support it, and that most certainly didn’t need to exaggerate or stretch the truth.

Cites Low-Credibility Malcolm Gladwell Among the Resources

When discussing rule-following and underdog success, the author says that:

In every war in the last 200 years conducted between unequal y matched opponents, the stronger party won about 72 percent of the time. However, when the underdogs understood their weakness and used a different strategy to minimize its effects, they won some 64 percent of the time, cutting the dominant party’s likelihood of victory in half.

How exactly did we reach “half”, I don’t get it.
And even then, he’s citing Malcolm Gladwell analyses.
Nothing wrong with Gladwell, he’s a great writer. But when it comes to science, he has little credibility for being part of that breed of pop psychologists that looks not for what’s true, but what’s most “shocking” to sell more -sometimes twisting studies to sound more shocking-.

Seems to Underestimate The Costs of Asking For Help

Says the author:

Those contemplating making a request of another tend to focus on the costs others will incur complying with their request, and don’t emphasize sufficiently the costs of saying no.

This is a major social misunderstanding in my opinion.
Generally speaking, you want to avoid cornering others in a position where they feel forced to say yes. They may say yes, and even help you, but they’ll come to see you as a taker who took from them.


  • Combines both theory and practice, and does both at a very good level
  • Well researched and resourced, albeit as we say above we didn’t like how some studies were spun or presented. But, overall, that didn’t change the logic and, we believe, validity of most of the author’s claims
  • Both persuasive and encouraging in spurring people to learn power dynamics and seek more power with a “can-do” attitude


Power is a fantastic book on power and power dynamics.

It mostly deals with power in business and organizations, and the strategies are in large part tailored to career advancement.
But because there are few great titles on power and power dynamics, and because Pfeffer did such a great job, Power is one of the best books on power, period.
See it here:

We also took a few golden nuggets for Power University, which is the biggest compliment we can pay to any resource we review.

Check the best books collection or get the book on Amazon.

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