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

Key takeaways from one of the best business books you'll ever read

Power photo

There’s a game of thrones afoot in every organization, whether we like it or not.

And we’re either in the game, exercising some degree of agency and control over what happens to us, or we’re on the sidelines, powerless to impact the course of events, and at the mercy of those with the power to call the shots.

Based on those hard facts, every person has a choice to make.

In, Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t, Stanford University Professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, mounts a vigorous case for why, and how, we should choose to forge a path to power.

Power is a must-read for anyone who labors in an organization.

And though it’s not perfect, it’s one of the best business books you’ll ever read.

To inspire you to explore further, here are some key takeaways from the book:

1. Power is natural.

Power is not necessarily bad.

All animals employ social hierarchies, even fish, and humans are no different, the professor points out. As a result, power and politics are the mainstays of human existence and wishing it were not so, not only disregards the natural order of things, it flies in the face of empirical evidence that suggests that people prefer hierarchies, and are even willing to subordinate themselves in order to form them!

This doesn’t suggest that power and politics are good or bad per se. Nor does it suggest that flat organizations and shared-power arrangements cannot work, though Pfeffer notes that such cases are inconclusive and exceedingly rare. The evidence is abundantly clear, however,  that hierarchies and power dynamics are, and have always been, a natural part of human societies and organizations.

To ignore that fact is foolish, he argues.

Eschewing power and organizational politics puts you at a disadvantage because acquiring positions of higher prestige and status is often a zero sum game, claims Pfeffer. Furthermore, lack of power and control can harm your health as feelings of powerlessness cause stress and invite illness.

Thus, people with power live longer, create more wealth and can exercise greater leadership. For all these reasons, the pursuit of power is desirable.

2. Get over yourself

Social psychologists believe that while people vary in the strength of their power motive, power-seeking might be a fundamental human drive. Thusly, Pfeffer argues that people are happier when they are effective in this quest and he’s out to help you.

In doing so, he stresses that there are three things that might get in your way:

  1. “The belief that the world is a just place.” (It isn’t.)
  2.  “The hand-me-down formulas on leadership that largely reflect this misguided belief”, (heed them at your own risk), and
  3. “Believe it or not, YOU!”

Expounding on this third point, also known as self-handicapping, the professor states:

People are often their own worst enemy, and not just in the arena of building power. That’s in part because people like to feel good about themselves and maintain a positive self-image. And, ironically, one of the best ways for people to preserve their self-esteem is to either pre-emptively surrender or do other things that put obstacles in their own way.

Therefore he wants you to “get over yourself” and try to become powerful without worrying about setbacks, self-image or what people will think about you.

Others aren’t worrying and thinking about you that much anyway, they are mostly concerned with themselves.

3. The 7 personal attributes that help you build power

According to Prof. Pfeffer there are 2 fundamental personal dimensions that aid in producing “personal power” and 7 total attributes you should work to develop.

Will or your “drive to take on big challenges” is the first dimension and skill, “the capabilities required to turn ambition into accomplishment” is the second.

In essence, Prof. Pfeffer is giving you the formula for the discipline required to attain power at work or in your own business.

The dimension of Will includes:

  1. Ambition — How high do you want to go?
  2. Energy — Developing power is hard work, it requires lots of energy to accomplish and people expect high energy from leaders.
  3. Focus — People with power are very strategic about what they focus their time, energy and effort on, people without power tend to avoid specialization and expend effort in many areas, thus diluting their impact.

The dimension of Skill includes:

  1. Self-knowledge and a reflective mindset
  2. Confidence and the ability to project self-assurance
  3.  The ability to read others and empathize with their point of view.
  4. The capacity to tolerate conflict.

This is a valuable recipe and I encourage to create a scorecard of these attributes and to grade yourself on each one. In what area are you weakest? Focus on improving that aspect of your path to power.

Of course, I’m only scratching the surface of all the valuable insights contained in Prof. Pfeffer’s book. The chapters on acting and speaking with power, using resources, building social networks, and dealing with opponents and setbacks are also highly instructive.

The Final Word

Harvard Prof. Rosabeth Kanter, whom Pfeffer quotes in the book, once wrote that in organizations, “power is a dirty little secret” and that, “Power is America’s last dirty word.”

Indeed, power and politics in organizations and in the affairs of men aren’t always pretty. They never have been.

I’ll never forget my disgust in high school when I read the words of Niccolo Machiavelli, whose thinking and counsel Prof. Pfeffer clearly respects. As an idealist, my nature is to dream of a better and brighter world in which we are less prone to destructive strife and uncaring leaders. And even after studying 2 of the works of Prof. Pfeffer I hang on to that ideal steadfastly.

We must find ways to lead beneficently, always pushing for the collective good of our organizations and our society.

But in doing so, we can’t afford to ignore reality—we must see the world as it is, not as we wish it could be.

Otherwise, we fall prey to those with less scrupples.

Yes, there’s a power game afoot. And you’re in it whether you like it or not. You are either accumulating power or losing it.

How will you choose?


Photo by Lindsay Henwood