I never got to touch it, but I once saw Michael Korda's "power phone." It looked like a dainty little instrument perched all by its lonesome on a bare modern desk. What made it powerful, Korda insisted in his classic 1980s-era best-seller Power!: How to Get It, How to Use It (Random House, 1975) — the book that codified the symbols of power for the next two decades — is that while typical executives had a dozen buzzing lines, he had only one. It rarely rang, because only the chosen could get through. It was a symbol, which is the most powerful accoutrement of all.
I've been hunting for a new Korda to define the symbols of power for these unique times. It turns out that the hot go-to guy on power today is Hollywood maven Sam Christensen. A former casting director, Christensen now teaches celebrities and businesspeople how to look the part of the leading man or leading lady. In the past dozen or so years, he has worked with 17 officers of Fortune 500 companies, 28 CEOs (including one who needed an image recovery after a criminal conviction), 8 Academy Award nominees (3 actual winners), Olympic gold medalists, TV anchors, astronauts, one Nobel-prize winner, a few royal Saudis, and, says Christensen, 10,000 other "very individual individuals."
"At this moment, there isn't any one model of power to copy," Christensen says. "The leading man of today can look as vulnerable as Woody Allen or as swaggering as Russell Crowe. The only symbol that gives one power is certain key words and lines." The words that he has in mind are self-directed — self-inflicted — negatives. "The most charismatic thing about people now is public self-disclosure," says Christensen. "It's people who say, 'I'm willing to take the risk of being entirely myself in front of you.' Tom Hanks is a perfect example. On the scale of masculine charisma or articulateness, he's not high. Yet he is so determinedly this ordinary guy that we all identify with him. Great actors have only a slight gap between how they feel inside and what they show on the outside." In other words, most of us only feel angry or aggressive or nebbishy. Stars express it.
Why are self-criticisms a stronger statement of power than a Brooks Brothers tie? Explains Christensen: "When you say something self-critical about yourself, others think, 'It's easier to be with this person, because they know themselves.' "
So if you want to compete in the new Power Olympics, what are the top five negative attributes — or "annoyances," according to Christensen — that you can claim as your own?
Top among them is bitchiness. "A young woman showed me two inscriptions in her old high-school yearbook," says Christensen. "One read, 'Andrea, it's a joy to have you in homeroom.' The other was, 'Dear Andrea, it's taken me all year to get to like you. And now I adore you.' Both perceived a little aggression from Andrea. So now Andrea makes that quality as plain to people as a St. John suit might have a while back. She uses the following line: 'You're going to want me on your side.' People love hearing this. Why? Because people appreciate being forewarned."
Another prize label is ditziness. "A successful, attractive, blond real-estate woman felt people put her in the category of 'good but distracted,' " Christensen says. "It was costing her sales. She learned to say, 'I'm all over the place — but I'm always on your side.' "
Ambitiousness also strikes us as ultra-annoying these days. "A woman who is extremely powerful worried that others saw her as overbearing," Christensen says. "She started to speak about her power, but not in an alienating way. She'd say to people, 'I have a lot of room under my wings' — highlighting that she could be a helpful guide. In tough situations, she would alter this to, 'I may be a bulldozer, but I can back up too.' "
Then there's passivity. "Everybody reacts to my gentleness," says Christensen. "Now I tell people, 'Be forewarned: I may be like too many pillows.' " And the king of annoyances? Know-it-all-ness. "Some people have a need to be smart," Christensen says. "These are people who have to learn to talk about their need to be on top of things. If you're in a meeting and you know you're about to do something to get others to see that you understand something that they don't, say something like, 'Maybe this just dawned on me, when you've been sitting in the daylight all this time, but . . .' You look smart without looking like you're proud of the fact."
Christensen thinks that this new approach to power won't go out of style, that the negative always breeds covetous attention. I hope he's wrong. I miss the dress-up clothes. I miss the toy phones. Is there another Korda in the house?
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Read her columns on the Web (www.fastcompany.com/keyword/rubin).
A version of this article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.