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Four Power Plays

“The 48 Laws of Power” vs. Fast Company. May the most powerful leaders win.

The table of contents of The 48 Laws of Power (Viking Press, 1998) reads like a modern-day version of Sun Tzu’s classic book, The Art of War. With chapters titled “Court Attention at All Costs” and “Do Not Commit to Anyone,” Robert Greene’s 452-page “handbook on the arts of indirection” appears diametrically opposed to Fast Company’s principles and precepts for the new economy.

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“The world is ruthless,” says Greene, a playwright and former editor at Esquire magazine. “In my experience, all this talk about cooperation and teamwork doesn’t amount to much in the end. Everybody is replaceable. There’s no sympathy and no pity. It’s a cold world. The freedom of the new economy also brings insecurity and uncertainty, so we all must establish and demonstrate our power.”

Below are four chapter titles from 48 Laws placed alongside snippets from Fast Company stories that challenge Greene’s conclusions and advice. We presented Greene with each contradictory scenario from Fast Company and asked him to explain his law’s meaning and relevance in the context of each scenario.

Which power schemes make sense to you?

Law 7: Get Others to Do the Work for You, But Always Take the Credit
FC Adage: “Trust equals speed. Once people have stopped worrying about what the other guy’s agenda is, you can make changes much more quickly.” — David Berdish, organizational-learning manager at Ford Motor Co.

If you’re working in a cooperative environment, like an assembly line at Ford, you want to foster a spirit of cooperation and to tell people they’re doing a great job. But in the public eye, the assembly-line workers don’t receive credit for the products they produce. And that’s what chapter seven addresses — the public’s perception of leadership and accountability.

For example, George W. Bush and Al Gore didn’t write every speech they delivered to the American public during the presidential campaign, yet they took credit for every word. Strategists and aides influence campaigns a great deal, but TV and radio commentators don’t credit those strategists in their analyses and critiques. Gore and Bush are individually lauded or criticized for their strategic moves, despite the fact that other people make those moves for them.

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A leader must appear brilliant and confident and totally apprised of all the facts and details. To appear superhuman, a leader must use the work of many people.

Law 11: Learn to Keep People Dependent on You
FC Adage: “My ambition was for the crew to learn so well that they wouldn’t need me. I really feel that a leader’s goal should be to make himself redundant.” — Simon Walker, managing director of Challenge Business

There will always be somebody above you. Even Simon Walker must answer to the company or person sponsoring his team. And it is in Simon’s best interests to convince his sponsor that he is irreplaceable.

If the person above you feels you have created a power base that would be costly to reproduce or to replace, they will keep you around. Conversely, by spreading yourself too thin, you risk losing power in a specific job or industry. In a slightly insecure environment, you must always study the person above you and figure out how you can wow that person.

From a leader’s perspective, you certainly want those below you to feel confident and to succeed because it is costly and time-consuming to replace people. On the other hand, you want your employees to fear you a little bit. You don’t want to stand around holding hands with your employees. When your people feel that you have surrendered your power, they begin to take you for granted. A little fear goes a long way.

Law 16: Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor
FC Adage: “Within two days of when new crew members arrive, I sit down with them face-to-face. I try to learn something about each of them: Why did they join the navy? What’s their family situation like? What are their goals while they’re in the navy — and beyond? How can I help them chart a course through life?… They respect the office but understand that I don’t care about the fluff — I want the substance.” — D. Michael Abrashoff, former commander of the USS Benfold

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I think Commander Abrashoff’s law may be “Law 43: Work on the Hearts and Minds of Others.” Louis XIV, for instance, went out of his way to be accessible. The lowest scullery maid in the Palace of Versailles could talk with him or shake his hand. His was an extremely powerful and effective technique, and I recognize that in my book.

Indeed, Law 16 applies best to relationships between men and women, or parents and children. But it also pertains to leaders and rulers. If you’re in people’s faces all the time, they grow to disrespect you or take you for granted. Leaders must exude an aura of power, respect, and intimidation.

If Commander Abrashoff tried his hands-on tactic for four or five years, it would wear thin. He would become a buddy to the soldiers, and they would lose respect for his authority as commander. He likely would sabotage his authority by being so chummy with his crew.

Law 38: Think as You Like, But Behave Like Others
FC Adage: “Divergent thinking is an essential ingredient of creativity. Diverse groups produce diverse thinking. Ergo, diversity promotes creativity…. Those who rely on diverse people are more likely to innovate than those who rely on platoons of similar people.” — G. Pascal Zachary, author of The Global Me

Every company takes on a distinct personality — an ethos that guides employees’ actions and priorities. Employees who scoff at their company culture likely won’t get very far.

If you are a colorful person, you may have to mute your colors and demonstrate your unique thinking in different, clever ways. By melting into the environment and mimicking your peers, you show that you respect and agree with the company ethos. It’s good to be different. It’s good to show that you have great ideas, but there’s a time and a place for everything. Use caution in your attempts to be different and clever because you may, in fact, put people off.

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Clearly, we work and live in a country of many different ethnicities, religions, and belief systems. To segregate or discriminate is just stupid, but you can’t work in an environment that lacks a core belief system. Diversity must not compromise the core principles of a company.

Contact Robert Greene via email (gdbbord@earthlink.net).

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