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Through three decades of teaching and writing about power, Jeffrey Pfeffer has emphasized a pithy but potent concept: Politics often trumps performance.

Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, can tell countless stories of networkers and self-promoters who shot to the top while others went nowhere or lost positions despite laudable achievements. Many of those stories punctuate his new book, Power: Why Some People Have It — and Others Don’t.

“It’s a book about surviving and succeeding in organizations,” says Pfeffer, who has taught these lessons to students since creating a course called Power and Politics in Organizations (now renamed The Paths to Power) at the business school in 1979. Now he’s spreading the message to a wider audience.

“I wrote the book for three audiences,” Pfeffer said.

“First of all, people who work in organizations and want to be more successful than they currently are need to understand the rules of the game, which are not necessarily the rules they are told.

“Number two, I wrote it for people who’ve already become powerful and want to maintain their power. They need to understand the potential problems of having power, and why and how people lose it.

“Third, the book is for people who are just interested in understanding the games that go on inside of companies so that they can become more astute observers of the organizations they deal with on a daily basis.”

Pfeffer starts his guide to power by explaining why people should want it: Power can improve your health and increase your wealth, and it’s necessary to get things done.

Once motivated to pursue power, he says, people need to overcome the obstacles to getting it. Atop the list is the belief that good work is the key to success. Competence is overrated, Pfeffer says, as the titans of the financial industry have shown in recent years. “Great job performance by itself is insufficient and may not even be necessary for getting and holding positions of power.”

Another obstacle is relying on the ubiquitous leadership literature written by people who tout their own careers as models but “gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.” These leaders’ ability to promote themselves as noble and good is the reason they reached high levels in the first place, Pfeffer says. Their advice could be accurate, “but more likely it is just self-serving.”

Finally, people handicap themselves by choosing not to risk failure. People want to feel good about themselves, Pfeffer says, and “any experience of failure puts their self-esteem at risk.” But, he emphasizes, the only way to master the power game is to practice.

Pfeffer’s students get plenty of that. Through the years, he has added exercises, projects, and lots of coaching to teach them how to get noticed, earn the favor of their bosses, build social networks and reputations, and act and speak with power. The work doesn’t come naturally to most of them.

“This class is like cod liver oil,” Pfeffer says. “They understand that it’s good for them. But they are uncomfortable — many of them, not all — with the ideas. They believe the world is a just and fair place, and if they work hard and do a good job they will be successful.”

Pfeffer says that older, more experienced students swallow his medicine more readily than younger ones and that each generation of students finds it more bitter than the previous one.

“In general, the current students are harder to teach this material to. And that is because the current generation of students … has been raised in a much less competitive environment,” he says, citing the example of swim meets in which every swimmer gets a ribbon.

“We live in a world in which people believe, because of social media and because of a bunch of other stuff, that hierarchy is dead and that everybody’s cooperating with each other,” Pfeffer says. “And what I would point out to people is that it is still the case that there’s only one CEO, it is still the case there is only one president, there’s only one school superintendent, there’s only one congressperson from each district, there’s only one dean of Stanford business school.”

Despite the challenges, Pfeffer has changed the outlook of many starry-eyed millennials. “In some instances there’s a true transformation during the course of the class,” he says. After implementing his advice through exercises and projects, students often find that they like doing it, they are good at it, and “it’s not as hard as they thought.”

Jenny Parker, MBA ’07, validated his point. She was skeptical when Pfeffer told her that asking someone for a favor could give her power. But when she tried it, she says, “they immediately asked for something in return.”

“I have fulfilled the prophecy that he preached,” she said. “I came back eyes wide open.”

People who have taken his class will find plenty of new information in the book, says Pfeffer, who has written two other books about power. “The class has changed a tremendous amount over the past 30 years.”

The book includes case studies Pfeffer has added to modernize the class. In the beginning, the cases were heavy with public figures such as former President Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, the New York parks commissioner who fashioned much of the city and
surrounding area’s infrastructure. Pfeffer now uses more examples of regular people, such as marketing maven Keith Ferrazzi and former software executive Zia Yusuf, who reflect the cultural diversity of today’s MBA classes.

Many of the new examples are “stories that my former students have told me about how they use the material. It is relevant, I hope, to a wider range of people who can look at this book and say these are people like me. This isn’t some unusual politician who was probably born with some gift that I will never have.”

As an educator, Pfeffer chooses cases for their instructive value and is careful not to judge what people do with power. When Oliver North pulled his Marine uniform out of mothballs and stared down members of Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings while admitting — under immunity — that he had shredded documents, Pfeffer saw an example of someone speaking and acting with power, and used him in his book. “I’m not teaching business ethics,” he says.

He is similarly agnostic when he tells leaders not to fret about putting their careers ahead of their organizations, “because there is lots of data to suggest that organizations don’t care very much about you.”

But anyone who follows Pfeffer’s blogs, magazine essays, or his books on human resource management knows he’s comfortable lecturing corporate leaders for acting against the long-term interests of shareholders, employees, or customers. “We all put on different hats,” he says, acknowledging the distinction in how he writes about different subjects. “If you eat a meal, you don’t eat all steak or eggplant or whatever your favorite food is. Most people will eat a buffet.”

So what would Pfeffer like to see people do with power?

“I would certainly like to have our leaders in corporations make decisions based on the facts as opposed to ideology, belief, what
everybody else is doing, what some consultant has sold them,” he says. “I’ve said that if doctors practiced medicine like managers practice management, most of them would be in jail. You would not tolerate the kind of sloppy thinking that I see on a regular basis inside business organizations.”

The problem, Pfeffer says, is that corporate leaders don’t believe that management is a science and prefer to use their intuition. The solution may be for people who agree with Pfeffer to pursue power for themselves.

They must begin that process by looking within, he says. “Stop waiting for things to get better or for other people to acquire power and use it in a benevolent fashion to improve the situation. … It’s up to you to build your own path to power.”

by Rick Nobles

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. The Thought of Acquiring Power Motivates People to Act
  2. Heath Book Explores Paths to Realizing Change
  3. Multipliers, a Book to Help Leaders Change the World

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