Book Review – Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer has that unusual ability to present common sense in such a way that makes readers like me think he could trademark it. Of the myriad so-called “gurus” among management theorists working today, Jeffrey Pfeffer’s practical “real world” ideas about attaining power make him truly unique. I’ve been feeling as though my capabilities to influence have been waning a bit lately. After all, it’s been a good three-and-a-half years since I’ve been president of anything. To rectify this I sought out some advice from the master. Like Luke Skywalker under the tutelage of Yoda I recently re-read his 2010 opus Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.

Pfeffer based this book on his “Paths to Power” course that he’s taught at the Stanford Business School. I’ve always longed to get sound business advice from one of world’s preeminent institutions on the subject. Of course, like most people, I don’t want to pay the stratospheric tuition for it. Plus, I’m a realist. I’m not “one of the best schools in the world” material. I had to take advantage of this great opportunity. Dr. Pfeffer and his book didn’t disappoint me.

Power presented a number of fascinating counter-intuitive ideas for attaining power. I’ll cover a few of them in this essay. The one that really grabbed my attention involved the down side of intelligence. One passage in the book stuck with me. It read as follows:

            …Intelligence, particularly beyond a certain level, may lead to behaviors that make acquiring or holding on to influence less likely. People who are exceptionally smart think they can do everything on their own and do it better than everyone else. Consequently, they may fail to bring others along with them…(Page 56)

Pfeffer went on to point out that much ink has been spilled (and gigabites used) on the subject of smart people making poor decisions. (Page 56) He referenced books such as The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam and The Smartest Guys in the Room, the chronicle of the Enron disaster, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.

After getting through Pfeffer’s disquisition on the perils of intelligence for once I felt happy that I’m not smart enough to get into Stanford.

Another piece of perspicacious advice I picked-up in the book entailed how behaviors shape our attitudes. (Page 89) I’ve always thought the process went the other way, but Pfeffer presented solid evidence why it doesn’t. He quoted Michigan professor Karl Weick saying, “I know what I think when I see what I say.” (Page 90) He also used a reference from Psychology in the form of Leon Fetinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. This concept is a high minded way of expressing the idea that people “seek to avoid inconsistency.” A good way individuals do this is trough having attitudes match behaviors. (Page 90)

My favorite bit of guidance in Power came from Keith Ferrazzi, the author of Never Eat Alone. (Full Disclosure: As I’m writing this piece I’m eating alone. As I mentioned earlier: I’m not the smartest.) I found a great anecdote about him that I’ve used in job search seminar’s I’ve hosted. Pfeffer described an unusual request Ferrazzi made of Pat Loconto, the former head of Deloitte Consulting, when the later offered him a job. Ferrazzi said that he would accept the position on one condition. He insisted on having dinner with Loconto once a year. This may sound like a very strange demand, but it gave Ferrazzi access to the main player in the organization. (Page 75)  

The one unifying theme of Power was that anyone can attain it. That’s helpful for me. I’ll keep readers posted on how my own path to power progresses. As I wrote I haven’t been president of anything in a while. I’ve also been very candid about the fact I’m not the most intelligent. After reading the book I’m starting to think running a small non-profit organization may have been setting the bar a little low. Maybe there’s a more prominent presidency someone like me can aspire to…