Career & Success

Introducing the Steps Toward Power to the Nice Generation

Jeffrey Pfeffer says that rising to the top requires a willingness to break rules — and competence is often overrated.

June 06, 2022

| by Patrick J. Kiger
Illustration of a staircase, with one woman climbing quickly to the top, and another woman sitting at the bottom of the stairs, facing the opposite direction. Illustration by everything bagel/salim hanzaz/iStock

“Don’t resent the inevitable ubiquity of power in social life; instead, master it.” | everything bagel/salim hanzaz/iStock

Whether your goal is to run a giant multinational business, win a presidential election, or solve a pressing social problem, you won’t achieve that goal without power. And Jeffrey Pfeffer is the person who can tell you how to go about acquiring it.

Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author or coauthor of 16 books, has spent decades studying how leaders build power and retain it. In his popular elective, The Paths to Power, he’s introduced thousands of students to his provocative, often contrarian concepts, such as the notion that becoming powerful necessitates breaking rules and that success — even though it’s difficult to define clearly — allows leaders to get away with almost any transgression.

In his latest book, 7 Rules of Power: Surprising – but True — Advice on How to Get Things Done and Advance Your Career, Pfeffer makes the case that rising to the top requires an understanding that power is a tool that can be used for noble or terrible purposes, and everything in between. “Don’t confuse or conflate your reactions to ‘power’ with your reactions to how, or for what, it has been deployed — particularly if it has been deployed successfully against you,” he writes. “Don’t resent the inevitable ubiquity of power in social life; instead, master it.”

Pfeffer would like to see his message reach people who don’t start the power game with a built-in advantage. “This stuff is all learnable and teachable. That’s the most important thing about it. You’re not born one thing or the other,” he says.

In a recent phone interview, Pfeffer elaborated on his unconventional ideas about power.

As you explain in the book’s introduction, you often hear from people that your ideas about power clash with the zeitgeist, which you see as emphasizing “collaboration, being nice, and enacting politically correct behavior.” Do you think your work is misunderstood, and if so, what’s the biggest misunderstanding?

I think many people believe that the world has changed in ways that make the traditional social science evidence on power less relevant. I don’t see any evidence for that. I’m not sure that it’s a misunderstanding; I think it’s more of a disagreement. What’s gone on in the leadership literature and talking about organizations is very much like what you see in politics. People confuse what they would like to believe or what they would like to happen with the ideas they will actually have to use if they want to be effective. You see this in many domains of life, where people confuse their preferences with reality.

You also defy the trend of elevating successful business leaders to mythic status. Instead of adulation, in a tweet last year, you criticized Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates as “cut from the same cloth — success at any price, and little regard for people.” Yet these are some of the same figures you cite as examples of how to build and wield power. Is that inconsistent, or do you draw a distinction between being powerful and being admirable?

The distinction is this: Power is a tool that can be used for any different purpose to which you want to apply it. One should not confuse the value of the tool with how it’s being used.

Though you cite those powerful white men in the book, you also celebrate the example of Rukaiyah Adams, a Black Stanford GSB alumna who is the chief investment officer of a $750 million trust, and others who’ve been traditionally underrepresented in leadership. Is the purpose of your work, in some ways, to help level the playing field?

“This material is more important to people who are going to compete against the advantages than people who begin with those advantages. If you’re going to get anything done, you have to have power.”

People whose last name is Rockefeller, people from privileged backgrounds, which are typically, in the current society, white men from upper socioeconomic classes, obviously need the power skills much less than women or people of color. People from underrepresented groups don’t start off on the 50-yard line. So I think your underlying assumption is correct — this material is more important to people who are going to compete against the advantages than people who begin with those advantages.

If you’re going to get anything done, you have to have power. If the world could change without the exercise of influence, it already would have changed. Things are in equilibrium, and if you want to get them out of equilibrium, you need some force. It’s physics applied to organizational behavior.

You write that acquiring power means breaking rules. But wouldn’t this work only if other people follow them? Otherwise, wouldn’t it negate the value of rule-breaking?

Most people will follow the rules, because that’s what they’re taught to do. From the earliest times of childhood socialization, you are taught to obey authority. One of the ways we learn to obey authority is that authority tends to come down pretty hard. In order to acquire power, you have to be brave, which is why most people don’t acquire power.

Another of your rules is that it’s important to appear powerful in both your words and body language and that self-confidence is crucial — even if it’s unwarranted. But wouldn’t overconfidence catch up to you if you don’t have competence as well?

Most organizational processes are self-reinforcing. If you’ve claimed competence, in fact, that just causes more people to want to work with you, and you are able to attract more talent. So you become more competent.

So the mere appearance of competence actually can become reality?

Absolutely. If you think about this, you can find 100 examples. We live in a world where it’s almost impossible to find out the truth. Therefore, appearance is always reality. I still remember sitting in an office of a large accounting firm, and I was introduced to the guy who was the head of the company’s business intelligence unit. After talking to him for a while, he left, and I said to this friend of mine, “I don’t think he has any business intelligence at all.” My friend said, “He looks good in a suit.” That, basically, is what I talk about in that chapter: the importance of appearance, body language. And if everybody thinks you’re a genius, you are.

When it comes to networking, you note that people to whom you are weakly connected are more valuable than those to whom you have strong connections. Would you explain why that is so?

The research on that is almost 50 years old, and the fact that nobody knows about it is kind of a disgrace. But the logic is pretty clear: People to whom you’re strongly tied tend to know the same people, and have the same information. So what the hell good are they? You need non-redundant people and information.

That point makes sense when we look at the example of someone like Vladimir Putin. A lot of commentators attribute his blunders in Ukraine to his isolation.

Do not confuse power with effectiveness. People believe that you get power by being in some objective way successful. But there are 1,000 ways to measure success, and many don’t correlate with one another. It’s way too fuzzy.

How would you define success or performance?

I wouldn’t. I would use a specific set of measures that were related to what I was interested in. Most of these [performance] metrics are poorly correlated with one another. Therefore, you have to be really precise about what you’re optimizing for.

You also make the point that once you get power, you need to use it to retain it. But if you’re not rewarded with power on the basis of competence and effectiveness, how would you use it to get results?

“Power is a tool that can be used for any different purpose to which you want to apply it. One should not confuse the value of the tool with how it’s being used.”

Most people who have power use it to get more power and to keep their power. The instant they get in, they change the rules so that their powers become institutionalized, like the supermajority voting shares that are becoming increasingly common in Silicon Valley companies. They get rid of their opposition. How Donald Trump took over the Republican Party is a case study, but it’s done in companies all the time. When CEOs come in, the first thing they do is get rid of the top management team of their predecessors, and then they have no opponents.

You also make the point that success excuses almost everything, and say that’s the most important rule of all. Why does that work?

Fundamentally, we are attracted to money and power. Therefore, once you have money and power, people will tend to forgive and forget what you did to acquire it. They will engage in rationalizations so they can be close to what they desire to be close to — power and success. Once again, there is academic research that illustrates that point. It is interesting that my class and writing are often called controversial or unconventional when everything I talk about has a great deal of scientific evidence to support it.

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