Self Help

7 Rules of Power - Jeffrey Pfeffer

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Matheus Puppe

· 29 min read

Here are a few key points summarizing the introduction to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book 7 Rules of Power:

  • Pfeffer argues that power is essential for getting things done and achieving career success, yet many people are uncomfortable with the idea of seeking power.

  • He contends that more “good people” need to gain power if power is to be used for beneficial purposes.

  • The book lays out seven research-backed rules for accumulating power: 1) Get out of your way, 2) Break the rules, 3) Appear powerfully, 4) Build a powerful brand, 5) Network relentlessly, 6) Use your power, 7) Success excuses everything.

  • Pfeffer draws on social science research, real-world examples, and his decades of teaching experience to explain why following these seven rules can help people gain power and influence.

  • He aims to provide practical, actionable advice for career-minded individuals seeking to increase their power and use it to accomplish good.

  • The book challenges the conventional wisdom that equates power with greed and argues that more good people, especially women and minorities, must actively pursue power.

In summary, 7 Rules of Power makes the case that power is essential and provides research-backed techniques for accumulating it and using it for beneficial purposes. Pfeffer aims to empower more people to develop power and influence.

  • The author thought he would never write another book on power, but four factors changed his mind:
  1. He has continued efforts to convey material on organizational power more effectively to talented people. Seeing the positive impacts this knowledge can have motivated him to share more insights.

  2. He wants to explain the behaviors of contemporary political and business leaders that people don’t understand, as they follow the rules of power.

  3. He encounters resistance to his teaching ideas, with people calling them “depressing” or “dark.” He hopes this book will help people become more powerful and thus see the world as less dark.

  4. Many argue today that power has fundamentally changed due to new values, generations, and technology. The author believes the principles of power endure.

  • The book outlines 7 Rules of Power:
  1. Get out of your way.

  2. Break the rules.

  3. Appear powerful.

  4. Build a powerful brand.

  5. Network relentlessly.

  6. Use your power.

  7. Success excuses almost everything you may have done to acquire power.

  • The author believes if people learn these rules, it can help them achieve more influence and avoid involuntary job loss. Despite perceptions, the fundamental realities of power and human behavior endure.

Here are a few key points summarizing the introduction:

  • Power is critical for getting things done and succeeding in one’s career. The author teaches a popular course on power at Stanford Business School because it helps students understand and navigate the world.

  • Despite talk of “new power” and the “end of power”, power dynamics have not fundamentally changed. Power remains concentrated, and authoritarianism is on the rise globally.

  • The author takes a pragmatic, realistic approach focused on understanding social science research on power. This knowledge can help “good people” gain power to create positive change.

  • The author advises doing due diligence on supposed “gurus” and leaders by looking into their track records, lawsuits, employee experiences, etc. Often their rhetoric needs to match reality.

  • The book will provide evidence-based rules of power to help readers become more effective and successful, not happy talk. Knowledge of power dynamics is critical.

  • An example is provided of Rukaiyah Adams, a Black woman who overcame barriers in the asset management industry by figuring out how to turn her outsider status into a strength. She became a conduit of information and built relationships.

Here are a few key points summarizing the passage:

  • Power is a tool that can be used for good or ill. The techniques of acquiring and wielding power are value-neutral - it depends on how they are applied.

  • The author aims to teach power techniques in a value-neutral way, not to preach ethics or make judgements on how power should be used.

  • Resistance to learning about power is common but counterproductive - it’s better to understand power dynamics and use that knowledge skillfully.

  • Political skill and savvy significantly improve career success and advancement. The author provides examples of people who embraced power techniques and achieved positions of authority and influence.

  • Failing to understand power dynamics and being unwilling to do what’s required to prevail often hinder people from achieving their goals.

  • There is extensive empirical evidence showing that developing political skill and engaging in political behaviors significantly improves career outcomes such as salary, promotions, job satisfaction, and life satisfaction.

  • People often go through stages of denial, anger, and sadness when learning about power dynamics that diverge from conventional wisdom. Denial involves rejecting the principles or finding counterexamples. Anger is directed at the messenger. Sadness stems from disliking the implications for oneself and the world.

  • Political skill helps people utilize other influence techniques more effectively, like networking, impression management, and ingratiation. It also reduces the negative impacts of workplace stress.

  • Powerful people tend to experience more positive emotions and affect. Research shows power is associated with greater life satisfaction and well-being.

  • Exercising power provides more autonomy, control, and independence. The author cannot advise on the right life path, but evidence shows political skill predicts career success across occupations.

  • Even in intimate settings like partnerships among friends, power dynamics emerge. Denying these realities can have costs. Mastering power principles, despite their unpleasantness, is pragmatic.

In summary, while learning about power can be emotionally tricky, research demonstrates its importance for career advancement and personal well-being. Denial and anger are common reactions, but accepting power’s ubiquity can bring significant professional and personal benefits.

  • The rules of power outlined in the book may seem to apply more to white men, since women and minorities face different expectations and obstacles in gaining power. However, the rules can still be helpful for women and minorities if applied strategically.

  • The appropriate comparison is not whether the rules work as well for women/minorities as for white men, but whether using the rules is more effective than not. The rules reflect certain social constants that apply across groups.

  • Many women and minorities report finding the rules of power very helpful for their careers and advancement. The rules provide practical knowledge even if putting them into practice may be uncomfortable.

  • It’s essential to reframe obstacles faced by women and minorities and use them strategically rather than as excuses. For example, the expectation that women network communally can be reframed into building relationships strategically with reciprocity. Visibility as an “only” can be leveraged.

  • The rules require skills and qualities that can be learned and developed. Women and minorities should advocate for themselves and not forget their interests and agenda. The playing field may not be even, but the rules can still be applied effectively.

  • Many talented people use self-descriptive, excessively modest, or self-deprecating language to undermine their power. This can limit their career prospects.

  • People, especially those from marginalized groups, often suffer from imposter syndrome - doubting their abilities despite external evidence of success. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • To gain power, overcoming imposter syndrome and describing yourself in confident, positive ways that highlight your accomplishments and credentials is critical.

  • If you do not project confidence in yourself, others are unlikely to think more highly of you than you do. Not advocating for yourself can be seen as a negative signal.

  • Exercises to change your self-image: Analyze the adjectives you use to describe yourself and eliminate self-limiting ones. Record yourself in professional interactions and notice excessive apologizing. Tell your career story emphasizing accomplishments rather than appearing modest.

  • Changing your behavior can lead to more empowering attitudes about yourself. Project confidence and power, and success is more likely to follow.

  • People can influence their attitudes and emotions by observing their behavior and making inferences about their internal states. Acting more confidently or powerfully can boost one’s confidence and sense of power.

  • Getting out of your own way and overcoming self-doubt is crucial for gaining power. Changing the narrative about oneself through greater self-awareness and bold action is essential.

  • Everyone has to decide what they are willing to do to gain power—opting out of typical power-seeking behaviors like networking and self-promotion disadvantages one.

  • Persistence and resilience in the face of obstacles are key. Influential people often experience failures and setbacks before succeeding.

  • Crazy ideas and unconventional approaches are often needed to achieve breakthroughs and transformations. Influential people are willing to propose and try bold ideas.

  • Not running away from power-seeking behaviors and being willing to do what it takes, within ethical limits, is essential to gain power and influence: self-doubt and an unwillingness to play the game limit one’s rise.

In summary, overcoming internal barriers, being persistent, and employing bold and unconventional strategies enables people to gain power and make an impact. The determined pursuit of power, tempered by ethics and values, is often necessary for significant accomplishments.

  • Persistence and resilience are essential qualities for gaining power. Judah Folkman demonstrated remarkable persistence over decades despite opposition to his ideas about cancer treatment.

  • Persistence requires not being overly concerned with criticism and having enough ego strength to stay focused despite setbacks. It can be developed through practice, experience, and social support.

  • Psychological processes can perpetuate low power. Research by Peter Belmi found lower social classes are less willing to use “political” strategies to gain power because they have a more collective orientation.

  • Presenting power seeking as benefiting others eliminates class differences in willingness to use political strategies.

  • Overconfidence leads higher classes to appear more competent, conferring advantages. Upper classes learn shamelessness at elite schools, which allows them to confidently seek power.

  • Race and gender also affect the willingness and ability to use political strategies. Asian executives are far less likely to become executives than white men. Programs on strategic political skills can help level the playing field.

Here are the key points from the passage:

  • Laura Esserman, a breast cancer surgeon and leader, does not conform to gender stereotypes and is willing to challenge people and assumptions to gain power and influence.

  • The concept of “authentic leadership” is not scientifically supported and can be harmful by limiting people’s willingness to engage in strategic behaviors to build power.

  • Striving for “authenticity” and excessive self-disclosure, especially of weaknesses, can undermine perceptions of status and influence.

  • Power skills and behaviors can be learned and practiced situationally without changing one’s core personality. Doing new things to gain power does not have to mean being “inauthentic.”

  • People change over time. Not engaging in new behaviors because they seem “inauthentic” can hold people back from gaining power.

  • Arguments that being strategic will eventually be uncovered as deceptive are questionable - people tend to see what they want to see. The rules of power do not require changing one’s personality, just practicing skills situationally.

  • Motivated cognition refers to the tendency to think in ways that produce conclusions consistent with one’s desires. This occurs across many domains, including interpersonal relationships, where people are motivated to believe others think well of them.

  • People need to improve at discerning deceit. Research shows lie detection accuracy rates barely exceed chance levels. This makes it easy for inauthentic behavior to go undetected.

  • Leaders need allies and supporters, so they should focus on understanding others’ wants and needs rather than being true to themselves. Lyndon Johnson mastered this, as did Willie Brown in building cross-party alliances.

  • Being overly concerned with being liked can undermine perceptions of competence and make it harder to take necessary but unpopular actions. Agreeableness is negatively related to career success, especially for men.

  • Disagreeableness does not help attain power either, as its aggressive behaviors are offset by fewer communal behaviors facilitating influence. Most people worry too much about being liked.

  • The need for approval and acceptance can hold people back from taking risks and stepping outside conventions required for gaining power. Letting go of this overwhelming need is essential.

  • Christina Troitino got into an exclusive dinner at the Sundance Film Festival by directly emailing the organizers and asking for an invitation, breaking the rules of waiting.

  • She also brought her boyfriend without getting approval for a plus one, further breaking the rules.

  • When COVID-19 began, Troitino started a group to organize virtual events for students without asking for official approval from Stanford. This led to a major charity fundraiser that enhanced Stanford’s reputation.

  • By taking the initiative and not waiting for permission, Troitino built her power and influence.

  • The main reasons breaking the rules can build power:

  • There is an association between power and norm violation - the powerful are freer to break the rules.

  • Taking an unscripted initiative makes you stand out.

  • It shows confidence and willingness to take risks.

  • It builds a reputation for being proactive.

  • The key is being proactive and not passive, taking initiatives others wouldn’t expect.

  • In the norm violation study, a bookkeeper who broke the rules was seen as more powerful than one who followed the rules.

  • In another study, an actor who violated social norms in a cafeteria was perceived as 29% more powerful.

  • In a third study, a confederate who broke the rules when interacting with participants was considered more potent.

  • Rule-breaking surprises others and catches them off guard before they can prepare a response.

  • Jason Calacanis broke the rules by unannounced walking into admissions and dean’s offices, which got him admitted and a better job.

  • Surprises cause people to pay more attention and generate curiosity.

  • Most people avoid conflict, so it’s easier to do something first and ask forgiveness rather than seek permission.

  • Robert Moses started park projects without permission, knowing they’d be hard to undo once built.

  • The lesson is that doing something makes it harder to reverse than if it’s just a plan.

  • Most people follow the rules and norms, even if they don’t benefit them, because of the strong desire to fit in and avoid social disapproval.

  • However, breaking the rules and defying expectations can often lead to success, as seen with many entrepreneurs and innovators. There is a dilemma between conforming versus standing out.

  • An example of a rule people adhere to unnecessarily is being reluctant to ask others for help or favors. Studies show people greatly overestimate how many people they need to ask before getting help.

  • People should be more willing to ask others for help or favors, as people enjoy feeling cooperative, flattered, and elevated in status by being asked. Breaking the norm of self-sufficiency by asking for things can lead to success.

  • The main lesson is that although there are pressures to conform, breaking the rules and norms can often provide advantages and opportunities not available through conforming. People should be willing to break specific rules, like asking others for help, to get ahead.

  • Keith Ferrazzi, a successful business leader, asked for special access and dinner with executives when deciding between job offers from McKinsey and Deloitte. His bold request got him what he wanted.

  • Reginald Lewis, the first African American to run a billion-dollar company, broke the rules by applying to Harvard Law’s summer program despite graduating college. He performed well in the program and convinced Harvard to accept him as a student, making history.

  • Those in power often create rules and social norms to maintain power. Challenging unjust rules and expectations is necessary for social change, even though it often faces resistance from those benefiting from the status quo.

  • Leaders seeking change and power, especially those from disadvantaged groups, must be willing to break rules that hold them back rather than conform. While this may create a “double bind,” following such rules limit people’s opportunities.

  • The different approaches of Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and BP’s Tony Hayward when testifying before Congress illustrate how appearing confident and assertive versus uncertain and passive impacts perceptions and career trajectories.

Here are the key points from the summary:

  • How you “show up” and appear to others is critical for attaining and maintaining power. People quickly form impressions and judge based on thin slices of your behavior and appearance.

  • Make eye contact, and appear comfortable and in command without excessive props or notes. Contextualize your role and convey competence.

  • Studies show ratings of short silent video clips of teachers correlate highly with actual student evaluations, suggesting impressions matter.

  • Ratings of CEO photos predict company profits, indicating appearance relates to perceived leadership ability.

  • Appearance matters across contexts - attractive politicians and professors are judged more competent and have more successful careers.

  • Match your style and appearance to situational norms and ideals to be judged competent and given opportunities. But also distinguish yourself.

  • Adopt open, expansive postures to appear more powerful. Use calm, lower-pitched vocal tones. Modulate emotions to context.

  • Appearance is not everything, but it matters more than it should. Managing impressions is essential, but it also demonstrates substantive competence.

Here are the key points from the summarized passage:

  • People’s facial features and body language convey information about power and status that influence how others respond to them, often outside of conscious awareness. Those perceived as more powerful get more deference and benefits.

  • Features signaling power include an appearance of height, symmetry, physical attractiveness, and facial expressions signaling dominance.

  • People can enhance their appearance of power through grooming, wardrobe, posture, facial expressions, and body language. It’s essential to understand your key audience and what signals of power will influence them.

  • Displaying anger is often seen as a power move while expressing sadness or apologizing conveys less power. Anger signals dominance and competence, while apology signals warmth. Leaders like Blankfein and Trump often double down or display anger when confronted rather than apologize.

Here are the key points from the summarized passage:

  • Apologizing can establish unambiguous responsibility for wrongdoing, which can damage one’s reputation. Refusing to apologize allows one to maintain a consistent self-image of competence and integrity.

  • Apologizing makes one appear weak and reduces perceptions of power and prestige—anger and denial of wrongdoing cause others to give up and move on eventually.

  • Leaders should project unwarranted self-confidence even if they don’t feel confident, as confidence is contagious and inspires others. Behaviors like speaking confidently and adopting expansive postures increase perceptions of competence.

  • In task settings, high-status individuals should avoid expressing weaknesses or vulnerabilities, as this reduces their influence and likability. Expressing confidence and competence is especially important for leaders.

  • Certain nonverbal behaviors like expanded posture signal power across cultures and genders. Leaders can adopt these behaviors to increase their perceived authority.

  • Laura Chau was promoted to partner at Canaan Partners in 2020. She recognized the importance of building a solid personal brand.

  • Chau built her brand by getting on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and starting a podcast called WoVen, where she interviewed senior women in business. This expanded her network and associated her with high-status people.

  • Associating with prestigious people and organizations helps build your brand and status due to the phenomenon of prestige rubbing off.

  • Chau strategically used her podcast to connect with prominent women, enhance her status through these associations, and build her brand.

  • Building a solid personal brand is essential for success, as it makes people think of you and gives you visibility and credibility. Building a brand includes associating with prestigious people/organs, getting media coverage, speaking engagements, writing, and social media.

  • The key is to develop a consistent, visible identity and image that positions you as an expert in your field. Your brand should communicate your unique value proposition.

  • Laura Chau used blogging, newsletters, podcasts, and speaking engagements to build her brand in the venture capital community. This allowed her to position herself as an expert and thought leader.

  • She hosted panels to learn from experienced operators in industries she wanted to invest in. She turned the content into blog posts to share knowledge.

  • Her newsletter lets her stay connected with the tech community, share resources, and publicize her content.

  • She started a Clubhouse show to have conversations with founders and VCs about significant deals, building relationships, and sharing insights.

  • All these activities created a “flywheel effect” where each one led to more opportunities and a broader audience. Her solid personal brand made her stand out in a competitive industry.

  • Tristan Walker built his brand around his identity and experience as a Black entrepreneur addressing the underserved grooming needs of people of color. His narrative gave him credibility.

  • Jeffrey Sonnenfeld faced reputation damage when accused of vandalism at Emory. He countered the negative narrative by getting his side of the story out through media and contacts.

  • People should craft their brand narrative before others define them. Laura Chau’s distinctive personal style is part of her brand. Your physical appearance and “look” can contribute to a memorable personal brand.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, adopted a signature black turtleneck look, possibly emulating Steve Jobs. Other tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey also cultivated distinctive personal styles. The frequent commentary on CEOs’ unusual appearances shows that people need to carefully consider their desired image and then act consistently with that.

Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown believed that style was crucial to his success. He deliberately stood out through his expensive, stylish clothes to convey that he should be taken seriously and had resources.

To build a personal brand:

  • Do podcasts - Jason Calacanis’s consistency with This Week in Startups grew his audience over time.

  • Write a book - Books can shape your narrative even if you use a ghostwriter. Articles and blogs also demonstrate thinking.

  • Speak at conferences or start your own - Jason Calacanis runs multiple events that build his brand.

  • Cultivate the media - Make yourself accessible for interviews. Tristan Walker provided extensive access to a journalist writing his profile.

The key is consistently projecting your desired image across multiple platforms over time to shape your brand narrative. Leveraging others, like media, to tell your story can be more effective than direct self-promotion.

  • Nora Chinchilla was skilled at cultivating media relationships to bring prominence to her work on work-family integration and women in the workplace. She made herself very accessible to journalists, provided them with data and access to her conferences, and focused on building long-term relationships with them.

  • Many leaders need to pay more attention to the need to build a personal brand and relationships with the media. Like Marc Benioff, those who invest time in this often get more favorable coverage.

  • Controversy and unorthodox choices, like Jason Calacanis’ Silicon Alley 100 list, can generate buzz and attention.

  • Leverage prestigious affiliations, as Sadiq Gillani did with Lufthansa and the World Economic Forum, to build connections and visibility.

  • Take credit for your work - don’t assume others will notice your accomplishments. Deborah Liu learned this lesson working at Facebook.

  • Tell your story consistently in conferences, articles, and social media to shape the narrative about your achievements.

The key is using media relationships, controversies, affiliations, and self-promotion to boost your brand and reputation.

  • Omid Kordestani was an early employee at Google (employee #11) and became their first business hire. He later left Google with a net worth of over $2 billion.

  • When asked what was the most crucial class he took in business school, Kordestani said, it was my class on power. I was surprised since I hardly remembered him.

  • Kordestani told me a story about how he initially didn’t embrace the message from my class about the importance of relationships and networking. After advancing slower than he wanted at Netscape, he focused more on building relationships inside and outside the company.

  • When Google was looking to hire a business person in the late 1990s, Kordestani’s name kept coming up in their research because of the extensive network he had built.

  • The key message is that networking and building relationships are critical for career advancement and visibility, even if it takes time to come naturally. Kordestani radically changed how he spent his time to focus more on this.

  • People need to spend more time building professionally beneficial relationships and networking. Studies show that people spend only a tiny fraction of their socializing time interacting with work colleagues, bosses, clients, etc.

  • There are several reasons why people don’t network enough:

  1. Interacting with friends and family is experienced as more enjoyable than interacting with work contacts.

  2. Some view networking as immoral - building relationships for personal advancement. This can make people feel “dirty.”

  3. People don’t want to mix friendship and professional relationships. Asking for job help from friends can strain relationships.

  4. Many see networking as a task rather than a skill to develop over time.

  • Nonetheless, research shows networking boosts career success - higher salaries, faster promotions, and greater career satisfaction. Social relationships are critical for getting things done and building influence.

  • The takeaway is that people should spend more time - studies suggest 8-10 hours per week - building relationships. Networking should be viewed as an essential skill to cultivate. More networking leads to more tremendous career success.

  • Networking is essential for career outcomes like compensation, promotions, and satisfaction. Research shows networking leads to visibility, power, performance, access to information, and career success.

  • People need to be intentional about spending time building social relationships. Successful networkers like Keith Ferrazzi, Jon Levy, and Ross Walker are thoughtful and strategic in structuring their social worlds.

  • Four principles can make networking more effective:

  1. Pursue “weak ties” - casual acquaintances provide novel information and contacts compared to close friends.

  2. Build trust - be trustworthy and build emotional bonds. Trust facilitates cooperation and information sharing.

  3. Leverage structural holes - connect disconnected groups and be a broker between them.

  4. Seek diverse networks - a range of backgrounds, perspectives, and affiliations expands information and opportunities.

  • Weak ties and connections to people on the periphery of our social network can contribute to our well-being. Interacting with diverse people can provide access to valuable information and opportunities.

  • Becoming a “broker” that bridges structural holes between groups can provide social capital. Brokers connect people and groups who can benefit from interacting and gain advantages from their bridging position. It would help to build networks yourself to gain these brokerage benefits.

  • A more central network position provides visibility, information access, and power. When evaluating roles, consider the centrality it will provide.

  • Create value for others in your network through reciprocity, liking, and being of service. Make specific requests, don’t ask people to do your thinking. Stay connected through casual updates.

  • Manage your networking time efficiently through technology like LinkedIn, relationship management software, and simple check-ins. Sustaining weak ties does not require deep interaction.

  • When Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency after JFK’s assassination, he moved quickly to use his new power to accomplish significant policy goals.

  • Johnson appointed Jack Valenti as an aide and, on Air Force One, sketched plans for his Great Society agenda, including Medicare, Head Start, civil rights legislation, and more.

  • Johnson recognized that new leaders have a limited window of time before opposition mounts, so they must act decisively at the start of their tenure.

  • The more leaders use their power to accomplish things and structure their environment, the more power they accumulate as they demonstrate their capabilities.

  • With CEO tenures declining, leaders across organizations have shorter windows to use their new power.

  • When Amir Dan Rubin became CEO of Stanford Hospital, he swiftly instituted significant operational changes focused on improving patient experience.

  • Rubin fixed longstanding issues, overhauled systems, required leadership rounds, and achieved dramatic financial, quality, and satisfaction gains.

  • His example illustrates the importance of decisively using one’s power early on to drive change and results.

  • Leaders can use power effectively to bring in supporters and move out opponents. This helps them implement their vision and strategy.

  • When Gary Loveman became CEO of Harrah’s (later Caesars) Entertainment, he moved out senior executives like the CMO who needed to gain the skills needed for his new analytics-driven strategy. He brought in trusted allies he had worked with before.

  • Turnover in the management team often happens after succession, especially outside succession. Leaders can frame it as needing new skills for performance improvement.

  • “Strategic outplacement” involves removing opponents by sending them to other, sometimes better, positions elsewhere. This gets rid of them while earning their gratitude.

  • When Willie Brown became Speaker of the California Assembly, he gave his rivals “escape hatches” to Congress through redistricting. This removed threats and solidified his power.

  • Leaders need to act strategically and dispassionately, not out of resentment. Stanford’s Frances Conley resigned, citing gender discrimination but handled it without anger, keeping doors open.

  • Effective use of power brings in supporters, removes opponents, and cements the leader’s power to execute their vision and strategy. Doing it strategically maintains relationships and reputations.

  • The example involves Frances Conley, a female neurosurgeon at Stanford who 1991, resigned in protest over the sexist culture and lack of advancement opportunities for women. Her resignation sparked outrage and investigations into discrimination at Stanford Medical School.

  • Though offered positions elsewhere, Conley stayed at Stanford to fight for change from within. The dean Conley challenged, David Korn, admitted he sabotaged her job prospects out of antipathy for her insubordination.

  • The story illustrates how strategic resignation can be effective if handled maturely, without burning bridges. Conley kept her leverage to push for change by remaining on faculty.

  • The author argues leaders should use power to signal their strength and willingness to prevail like Robert Moses aggressively demolishing obstacles like a ferry terminal. His bold wielding of power attracted allies and kept him in power.

  • Leaders can also entrench power by structuring rules and ownership like dual-class shares that consolidate voting control. Other examples are holding CEO and board chair roles and averting succession threats. The aim is to perpetuate power by showing it cannot be readily challenged.

  • Senator Lindsey Graham went from strongly criticizing Donald Trump during the 2016 election to becoming one of his most loyal supporters once Trump was elected president.

  • Graham explained this shift by saying he saw an “opportunity” to work with Trump and gain relevance, significantly helping Graham get re-elected.

  • This example illustrates a broader phenomenon - once someone achieves power, others are often willing to overlook past criticisms or controversies and cozy up to that person.

  • Powerful business leaders often remain admired despite scandals or controversies.

  • People are drawn to power and want to associate with the powerful, even if the influential person’s behavior might have previously been unacceptable.

  • This demonstrates Rule 7: Previous misdeeds or controversies are often excused or overlooked once power is achieved.

  • The author argues people shouldn’t worry too much about the consequences of pursuing power because power can make problems disappear. Success excuses (almost) everything.

  • Many believe that social and organizational processes balance power and punish misdeeds (a “homeostatic” view). However, existing advantages often get amplified over time (the “Matthew Effect”).

  • Once someone attains power and success, they tend to keep it. Advantages like status, resources, and connections lead to future success in a self-perpetuating cycle.

  • Cognitive biases like confirmation bias also reinforce perceptions of the powerful as successful, regardless of actual performance.

  • There are arguments for why the powerful may face harsher sanctions, like being seen as more intentional in misdeeds or having greater visibility.

  • However, the author argues that, in general, power insulates people from consequences. They provide examples of influential people escaping sanctions for misdeeds.

  • Reasons for this include people wanting proximity to the powerful, motivating them to forgive misdeeds or look the other way. The author will elaborate on these arguments further.

The main point is that power and success tend to excuse misdeeds and perpetuate future power rather than being balanced by social sanctions.

  • Many prosecutors go on to work as defense attorneys, blurring the lines between adversaries in the legal system. This applies more broadly to elites in positions of power who travel in similar social circles.

  • These social connections dampen any outrage over wrongdoing and make people reluctant to sanction similar others. A “get along-go along” culture insulates the powerful.

  • Examples of executives like Gary Winnick (Global Crossing) and Michael Milken (junk bonds) faced little consequence for alleged wrongdoing due to their wealth, power, and connections.

  • The same applies to women like Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), who can still find acceptance and raise money despite past issues.

  • In Silicon Valley, wrongdoers are often quickly forgiven and can attract funding again. Social connections and success help people overlook or forget about past misdeeds.

  • The critical lesson is that success, wealth, power, and social connections can insulate people from consequences for misconduct. Maintaining an influential network is a form of protection.

  • Once people attain power, wealth, and status, they tend to remain robust even if they misbehave because their position insulates them from consequences. Their connections and success protect them.

  • This insulation from consequences helps explain why the powerful misbehave in the first place - power leads to disinhibition and riskier behavior.

  • Motivated cognition provides a mechanism for ignoring misbehavior by the powerful. People need cognitive consistency, so they rationalize the misdeeds of influential people to align with the view that they deserve their status.

  • The belief in a just world also leads people to rationalize misbehavior by attributing positive traits to the powerful to see the world as fair.

  • Moral rationalization is one process people use to resolve inconsistencies between supporting immoral public figures/companies and seeing themselves as moral. They redefine or recontextualize misdeeds to make them seem more acceptable.

  • Overall, various psychological tendencies lead people to maintain positive views of the powerful even amid misdeeds, ensuring the powerful remain so. Though some powerful figures eventually face the consequences, it often requires rare, tremendous efforts to expose their misdeeds.

Here are the key points summarizing how the powerful shape history and relationships to their advantage:

  • The powerful use moral rationalization and decoupling techniques to justify questionable behavior and maintain relationships that benefit them. By redefining or minimizing harm, they can retain associations with those engaged in wrongdoing.

  • People are attracted to power and success and seek proximity to the powerful. When someone gains power or status, others alter their opinions and behavior to get close to them. Conversely, when power is lost, many will distance themselves.

  • Those in power have the resources to create history and narratives that portray themselves favorably, downplaying misdeeds. By writing their own story, the powerful perpetuate their status. Many leaders have published autobiographies promoting their image.

  • The ability to craft and repeat a narrative until it becomes accepted truth is essential for retaining power. Investors, employees, and customers often love these self-promoting stories told by the powerful.

  • The powerful also use monuments, buildings, institutions, and other artifacts to reinforce narratives that sustain their status. Their names adorn universities, museums, airports, charitable works, and more.

  • The powerful actively shape Relationships and reputations to maintain their position. They use resources to whitewash, reinterpret, or obscure history and forge advantageous relationships.

  • The “great man” myth elevates the role of a single entrepreneur and writes others out of the story. As long as the narrative “sells” and inspires, people care more about the vision than factual accuracy. Telling one’s story early and convincingly can perpetuate power.

  • In a materialistic world, social life is transactional. Power and prestige can generate resources to “purchase” legitimacy through prestigious donations. Named donations help confer respectability on donors.

  • Once in power, the powerful tend to stay there. Power brings status and wealth that make past actions irrelevant. The powerful can ensure their story is told in self-serving ways. Consistency effects cause people to justify and honor the powerful.

  • Knowledge of power rules is only helpful if turned into action. Repeated practice turns knowledge into habitual behaviors. What the rules teach goes against norms, so the persistent effort is required. Success comes from frequently applying the rules until their use becomes natural.

  • Leadership is about pragmatically getting things done, not morality. Since the principles in the book don’t come naturally, you need help applying them.

  • Get an executive coach who will constructively push you outside your comfort zone to think about your choices and actions. Don’t just look for sympathy.

  • Set up a personal board of directors to provide accountability, different perspectives, contacts, and coaching. People are often willing to help.

  • Organize “power lunches” or a “power posse” to brainstorm implementing ideas from the book into specific actions. Interacting with others provides new ideas, motivation, and support.

  • The key is translating general principles into concrete actions for your specific situations. A group allows safely asking for help and reporting progress.

  • You don’t need to be an MBA or at Stanford. Power is discussing ideas and getting help applying them to gain power.

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About Matheus Puppe