Leaders should be authentic and show vulnerability to build the trust that is the hallmark of effective teams. That’s current conventional wisdom, underscored by the heightened need during the pandemic for managers to create connections with workers and motivate them with purpose.
Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer differs. In his recent book 7 Rules of Power, the longtime Graduate School of Business professor contends that leaders should exhibit confidence over authenticity and display anger rather than vulnerability. “People want to be aligned with someone who they think is going to win, to prevail, so doing anything that disabuses them of that belief is probably a mistake,” he writes. (p. 80)
Pfeffer made similar arguments in his 2010 book Power and Leadership BS in 2015 and in his popular Stanford class “The Paths to Power.” “If you want happy talk, this is not the place for you,” he warns readers early in his latest book (p. xx), which features Elon Musk, Jack Welch, Donald Trump, and Robert Moses among the recurring characters.
“Workplaces are mostly horrible,” he wrote in Leadership BS (p. 10). His contrarian view is that what leaders are told to do—be authentic and modest, for example—is often responsible for perpetuating that. Instead, Pfeffer contends that to get things done, leaders should understand how to amass and retain power. “If power is to be used for good, more good people need power,” he writes, (p. xix) but otherwise largely skirts questions of morality with his sometimes uncomfortable “real talk” about power.
His stated goal with 7 Rules of Power is to arm readers with tactics so that they “never have to leave a job involuntarily” (p. xv) and to enable them to be healthier and happier, as he believes having more power is associated with that. Pfeffer throughout the book argues that underrepresented groups can benefit from the same approaches to using power as a tool.
Here are his seven rules:
- Get out of your own way. Pfeffer makes the case for getting over any hang-ups about self-promotion and leaning into confidence and overconfidence. “Be willing to do whatever it takes—don’t run away from power,” he writes. (p. 25) He’s impatient with accommodating shy or introverted students, telling them it’s for their own good that they’re forced to overcome any inhibitions about speaking publicly. Pfeffer sees downsides to leaders sharing their vulnerabilities with colleagues, citing research that suggests it leads to lower influence. And he notes that researchers have found that being agreeable results in worse career outcomes and disagreeable people are just as successful in attaining power.
- Break the rules. “Violating norms, rules, and social conventions can make rule breakers seem more powerful and thereby create power for them,” Pfeffer writes. (p. 48) Rule-breaking surprises people, which causes them to pay more attention to you. And, as is often said, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, as Moses did in starting work on New York City development projects before having the permits for them.
- Appear powerful. Pfeffer makes the case that displaying anger and not apologizing are effective tools for building power. And when it comes to speaking, he advises avoiding using notes when you speak and using simple words, strong declarations, and repeating themes. “Master how to appear confident, attractive, and powerful,” he says, in summary. (p. 84)
- Build a powerful brand. Associating with prestigious people and organizations is one way to do this, as their status and prestige rubs off. Other methods Pfeffer recommends include podcasts, books, and events, along with ample self-promotion. “You must also craft [your] narrative in a way consistent with the hero’s journey, so that people are more likely to remember it and, more importantly, embrace its inspirational message,” he writes. (p. 105)
- Network relentlessly. Researchers found that networking was “the most robust predictor of career success,” according to Pfeffer. (p. 114) He recommends prioritizing people on the periphery of your social network—so-called “weak ties”—as they bring more new information and contacts compared to closer connections. Pfeffer advises playing a broker role in connecting different people or organizations with ideas, opportunities, and resources, and creating value for others. He also suggests looking for jobs that are central in terms of information flows and access.
- Use your power. “Use power quickly to get things done,” Pfeffer writes (p. 129), citing Lyndon B. Johnson’s sketching out an ambitious policy agenda for his administration in his first hours and days as president. Pfeffer advises moving allies into key positions to support you, and getting rivals into other roles where they’re less threatening. “By demonstrating power and the willingness to use it, by accomplishing things, and by establishing structures that institutionalize power, the use of power becomes self-reinforcing,” he writes. (p. 141)
- Success excuses almost everything you may have done to acquire power. “Power generally insulates people from suffering too greatly for the consequences of their actions,” Pfeffer observes. (p. 151) That’s “partly because people want to be close to money and power and are therefore willing either to forgive those who have them or avert their gaze from their possessors' misdeeds.” (p. 151)
What’s the best way to move forward in increasing your own power? Among other things, Pfeffer advises:
- Get a coach to push you to think hard about your choices and actions.
- Set up a personal board of directors of people you know to hold you accountable for hitting your objectives.
- Make lists of what you want to do, who you want to meet, and what you want to learn.
To be sure:
- The 7 Rules of Power doesn’t dwell much on how to actually use power for good. It also doesn’t spend much time on the noxious side effects of overconfidence, aggressive self-promotion, status-consciousness, and political maneuvering that it endorses. Its frameworks emphasize hierarchy over the collective and sink-or-swim competition over supportiveness and accommodation.
- Pfeffer contends that research supports the idea that people with more power and status are healthier and happier. How broadly true is that? And the downsides of their use of power make Trump, Welch, Musk, and Moses—all exemplars in the book—seemingly undermine Pfeffer’s arguments.
- For a directly contrasting take on power and its use for good, consider reading Power, for All by Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro. Among other things, it argues that humility and warmth can increase a leader’s power.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Keith Ferrazzi, the chairman of Ferrazzi Greenlight, accepted an offer to join Deloitte Consulting after finishing Harvard Business School on the condition he could have dinner once a year with Deloitte’s top leader.
- Researchers showed students short video clips of college teachers without audio and asked them to rate the teachers for confidence, dominance, honesty, and empathy. Their ratings correlated highly with those of students who took actual classes from the teachers over many weeks. “Both the raters—and the students—are responding to how people appear,” Pfeffer writes. (p. 70)
- Research conducted at a software company found that people who expressed anger more frequently earned more and were promoted more.
- The “Matthew Effect” is a reference in sociology to the bible quote from St. Matthew’s gospel: “For whoever has will be given more…” Researchers find that—consistent with the Matthew Effect—people who have higher status receive disproportionate recognition for their work.
- “Job performance is important, but if no one notices that performance, it is for naught. Power and performance together will get you much further ahead than either one separately.” (p. 2)
- “Women need to be twice as good to get half the credit. Fortunately many women are four times as good.” —Alison Davis-Blake, former president of Bentley University (p. 17)
- “Using power effectively is more likely to perpetuate it than to exhaust it.” (p. 129)
The bottom line is that 7 Rules of Power provides a clear roadmap for increasing your personal power and status over other people, if that’s what you’re looking to achieve. But it neglects to wrestle fully with the negative impacts of the tactics it espouses.
You can order 7 Rules of Power at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We might earn a commission if you purchase a book.)
Listen to the Pfeffer on Power podcast.
Read all of our book briefings here.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.