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The Purpose of Power

Posted by Gary Hamel on May 11, 2011

Power has long been regarded as morally corrosive, and we often suspect the intentions of those who seek it. Indeed, the lust for dominion is so unseemly that few of us would openly admit to a craving for clout.

Hence, it might surprise you to learn that one of the world’s most distinguished management thinkers has recently produced a detailed manual for the power-hungry.

It often seems that the mendacious and egotistical have a particular talent for accumulating (and abusing) power—and at some point, most of us have probably been out-maneuvered by a more adept political infighter. But in Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t, Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, gives nice guys and gals the tools they need to even the odds, by summarizing more than 30 years of research and teaching on how to get ahead.

Recently I talked with Pfeffer about why he’s written a book on power at a time when most management gurus are talking about collaboration, community and “open leadership.” Pfeffer’s argument is disarmingly simple: It takes power to get things done. Without power, you’re impotent—irrespective of your talents or the righteousness of your cause.

Pfeffer started our conversation by reminding me of a disagreeable fact: Power is largely independent of intelligence (emotional or otherwise) and job performance. All of us know individuals who are brilliant but who punch below their weight when it comes to office politics. Conversely, we all know dim bulbs who’ve somehow found their way to the top of the tree. Cunning power players can even slough off failure. Think, for example, of all those executive vice presidents and board members who dithered while the banking system burned and yet managed to hold on to their positions, or even grab better ones in the wake of the collapse. It’s not that IQ and value-added aren’t important; it’s just that they’re no substitute for power.

So what’s Pfeffer’s advice for those eager to take charge?

First, you have to recognize that power is mostly taken, not given. Jeff quotes Peter Ueberroth (who organized the 1984 Summer Olympics and went on to become Major League Baseball’s Commissioner and head of the U.S. Olympic Committee), as saying power is 80% taken and only 20% given. In other words, if you want power you have to grab it. So when you see opportunities to extend the scope of your influence, seize them, and when you spot a power vacuum, fill it.

Second, you need to understand the importance of your personal network and work relentlessly to improve it. Pfeffer recounts a conversation he had with Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre hotels. Conley pointed out that most people think of networking as a task, like taking out the trash. But no one tries to get better at taking out the trash. You can, however, get better at networking, and it’s important for people who are trying to gain more power to do so. With this in mind, Pfeffer recommends you think of networking as a skill “like speaking French or playing the piano.”

Third, if you want power, you have to work to stand out. Growing up, we are often taught to be timid: Ask permission; Wait your turn; Stay in line; Don’t attract attention. But to get power, you have take the risk that comes with raising your head about the parapet. “Risk,” says Pfeffer, “is just as important in human capital markets as it is in financial capital markets. No risk. No reward.” Early in your career, it can help to volunteer for a task that others have shunned, or jump into a newly created role. The logic? It’s easier to stand out when you have your own niche and easier to get ahead when you don’t have to expend a lot of energy fending off rivals for a coveted post.

Fourth, the pursuit of power requires persistence. Too often, Pfeffer argues, we look at powerful leaders and assume they got there without stumbling. But every great leader, from Abraham Lincoln to Steve Jobs, has encountered failure. The difference between those who go on to become powerful leaders and those who don’t, rests in how they react to reversals. If they accept failure as a verdict of fate, they will sink into anonymity. If, on the other hand, they learn from the blow, if it strengthens their resolve and prompts them to search for lessons, they will rise higher. Pfeffer cites the example of Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, co-founders of The Home Depot: “That story begins with two words: ‘you’re fired.’” In 1978, Marcus and Blank were fired from Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers in a dispute with the largest shareholder—this despite the fact that as president and CFO, the pair had led the business to record earnings. The setback proved to be the impetus Marcus and Blank needed to chase their dream of building an entirely new sort of super-scale DIY chain.

If you want to hang on to power, Pfeffer argues that it’s better to be aggressive and unapologetic than bashful and contrite—even when you’re wrong. In his long-running MBA course, The Paths to Power, Pfeffer shows his students two videos. In each, the CEO of a beleaguered company is getting grilled on Capitol Hill. The first features Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ Chairman and CEO. When challenged over his bank’s role in the financial meltdown, Blankfein is pugnacious, unrepentant and in no mood to cede points. In the second video, BP’s Tony Hayward, who was unlucky enough to be CEO at the time of the Deepwater Horzon oil spill, comes across as meek and penitent. When the videos conclude, Pfeffer notes dryly that while Blankfein still has his job, Hayward was forced to resign less than six weeks after his congressional testimony. The meek may one day inherit the earth, but Pfeffer doesn’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

Pfeffer concedes that the quest for power demands a certain degree of selfishness. When asked whether a would-be leader should put company ahead of career, Pfeffer is unequivocal: “I’m not sure you should worry over much about the effect you behavior has on the organization overall, because there’s lots of data that suggests the organization doesn’t care much about you.”

But what about the (very real) risk that power becomes an end in itself—that principles and prudence get jettisoned as excess baggage in the clamor to the top? Pfeffer’s advice: Put together a “personal board of directors” comprised of capable and honorable mentors. These shouldn’t be close friends or competitors, since you’re looking for honest and objective counsel. They should be people, though, who care enough about you to hold you accountable, and conversely, you should care enough about them to take their advice seriously.

Like all of us, Pfeffer wants leaders who aspire not only to power but to goodness. The virtuous don’t always win, but Pfeffer believes a meritorious cause can be a signficant force multiplier. As an example, he cites the case of Dr. Laura Esserman, a surgeon at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. For years, Esserman waged a tireless campaign to make the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer more humane and patient centric. Her ultimate success, Pfeffer argues, was due in part to the nobility of her cause. While the meek may never inherit the earth, it’s heartening to know that the selfless may have a slim advantage in accumulating power.”

Having updated Machiavelli for the 21st century, does Pfeffer believe that everyone will soon become an accomplished power hound? Nope. Most people, it turns out, just aren’t willing to put that much into achieving the power they think they want. “There’s a price for power,” Pfeffer says. “I know very few very successful people who don’t devote a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of effort to their careers. Successful football coaches, for example, spend a lot of time in the film room watching games. When you’re watching the films, you’re not with your wife or your kids or your friends or whatever. So there is definitely a price to be paid, and not everyone is willing to pay that price. In the end, people have to figure out how much work they’re going to put into this.”

Like most of us, Pfeffer wishes large-scale organizations were paragons of meritocracy where competence and influence are always perfectly correlated, but he knows that’s not the case—at least for now. Hence his advice to anyone who’s itching to turn their company into a post-bureaucratic nirvana: You’d better first equip yourself with the armaments you need to beat the partisans of power politics at their own game.

So dear readers, a question: Do you believe you can succeed in an organization without explicitly working to acquire power? And if you answer “yes,” please explain your thinking, or provide an example.

If you’d like to watch a video of my interview with Pfeffer, you can find it here.

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Yes, You Can Acquire Power

Hi Gary.

I almost certainly do think you can acquire power in an organization without trying. (Although if you look back on how you ceased power, you may well find a strategy you can teach to others!)

In software, a field I work in often, the creator of a piece of code can cease great power, becoming a source of knowledge. I have seen this happen numerous times. That person can of course use or abuse this power as they see fit. They can coach, can visit trade shows, they can argue with the CEO. I.e. they have great influence on their organization.

I have also seen the same in finance companies for the same reasons.

The same is true in sports teams, where excellent players mutate into coaches and thus wield great power.

The thing about the examples I have given is that although software and finance companies are never pure meritocracies, they often come close. This is because there are ‘no hiding places’, i.e. you rise and fall with your work. This is not the case with politicians, who produce nothing and thus, as you say, often do ‘slough off failure’.

Maybe there is a spectrum, with advertising agencies on one end (the same end as the politicians) and software companies on the other. At the software end can indeed gain power without trying. At the other end you can’t. On this spectrum the tangibility of what you produce is directly related to wether you have to try to cease power or not.

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