Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don’t – Part 1

Black king in a chess set

The following post is an excerpt from a recent Leadership Leverage radio show. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dr. Denker: I wanted to explore the topic of power – why some people have it and others don’t.

In our discussion today we’ll learn what power is, how to get it, and how to use it to bring about change to get things done, and how it can help you be a more effective leader.

To help us navigate this journey, we’ll be speaking with Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a distinguished and popular educator, author, and international consultant.

Dr. Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, and he’s the author, or co-author of 13 books.

Dr. Pfeffer’s latest book entitled “Power: Why some people have it and others don’t” is the focus of our dialogue today, and is a fascinating read as to the central message that intelligence, performance, and likeability alone are not the keys to career success.

Instead, self-promotion, building relationships, cultivating a reputation for control and authority, along with projecting a power demeanor, are vital drivers for promotion and success.

Let’s Talk About This Thing Called “Power”

Dr. Denker: Let’s talk about this thing called power because I’m sure that I’m not alone when I think about the word “power,” particularly when it’s used in the organizational context.

It conjures up the dark side of an enterprise.

I think of behaviors related to some of the senior executives at Enron, and perhaps most recently at BP.

Although having said that, I think that the CEO of BP, at least when he went in front of the Senate, he didn’t look very powerful.

Dr. Pfeffer: No, he didn’t.

Dr. Denker: Since these types of incidents do conjure up the dark side, what’s the positive side of power?

Dr. Pfeffer: I think your question really raises two issues.

The first is this whole issue of the dark side.

I think one of the problems with a lot of the current leadership literature and a lot of what we are trying to train in leadership development is we present an overly rosy, or in many instances a heroic, view of some figures that we think are great leaders.

Steve Jobs RIP portrait

People like Jack Welch of GE, Steve Jobs of Apple, or for that matter political figures and non-profit leaders such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi.

We present this kind of overly idealized view.

I think people are very easily susceptible to, first of all, believing in a myth rather than reality, and secondly, to saying again, “This isn’t me. I can’t be as perfect, or as wonderful, or as intelligent, or as foresightful as these individuals.”

I actually believe that we are much better served in educating folks, and in getting them equipped to deal with the world as it and telling them the truth that all people have good and bad aspects to them, and that not all of life is all rosy and it is never going to be all rosy.

Therefore you have to deal with the world as it is.

Somebody asked me once, “This is kind of a dark view,” and I said, “Look, everybody gets old and dies. That’s a dark view.”

Dr. Denker: That is a dark view.

Dr. Pfeffer: I think if you’re going to try to live your life as successfully and effectively as possible, you have to deal with reality.

I think the first aspect to your question is we need to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be if we’re going to be effective in that world.

In a company, sales are designed to maximize sales, and marketing is designed to maximize market awareness, and product operations are trying to reduce cost.

These things may sometimes conflict with one another and so there are going to be disagreements.

Conflict is not a bad thing, and disagreements are certainly not a bad thing as people have different perspectives as to what the company ought to be doing.

The only way to resolve these perspectives and get things done is to have enough influence skills to make things happen.

Power is essential for getting things done.

Dr. Denker: Clearly it is, and yet many of the ideas that you position in your book are foreign to what folks have been taught.

I think when they hear this type of message from you about self-promotion, and about cultivating a reputation for control and authority, and projecting this power demeanor, it’s very different.

Playing The Power Game: Not Politically Correct, But Necessary

Politically Correct Gummy BearsDr. Pfeffer: If it’s very different that’s good because there’s certainly a lot of evidence that supports everything I talk about in this book

And if it’s different, that just suggests that I think a lot of the stuff that they’ve been told is this kind of “feel good,” or as my wife sometimes calls it the “kumbaya,” theory of leadership that we’re all going to sit around and hold hands and sing songs, and everything’s going to be great.

If you think about it, we live in a world in which competition I think is really often times not viewed very favorably – and I’m talking about interpersonal competition.

Dr. Denker: If these power skills are so important, why haven’t most leaders paid more attention to them? It seems to me that often times they’ll shy away from developing these skills.

Dr. Pfeffer: I’m not sure I agree completely with the premise. I think most people who arrive at high level leadership positions inside of large organizations – government, for profit, not for profit – probably have a reasonable amount of power skills.

They would never have gotten to where they are without them.

They may not want to talk about it because it’s not politically correct, but I think most of them actually have a fair amount of power skill or they would have never gotten to where they are.

I don’t see many people arriving at these senior level positions just on the dent of their charm and hard work.  Most of them understand pretty well how the game is played and what they need to do.

Practical Steps For Increasing Your Power

Dr. Denker: I’m wondering if you can talk about some practical steps that our listeners can take, those who are leaders in organizations, to embrace this concept of being more powerful.

Dr. Pfeffer: There are many things that they can do.

One thing, which I think is very useful for everybody, is to understand the personal attributes or the personal qualities that bring power, and then to do a very objective self assessment – with a coach, or with a colleague, or even with a personal board of directors – to figure out what they’re going to do to build those qualities.

I think it’s very useful to get yourself some coaching and some help, either from friends or professional coaches, or to work on the various qualities that build power, and those qualities include things such as energy.

People say, “Well, I’m a high energy or a low energy person. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

That isn’t really true.

I have a friend who’s a physician, a surgeon who will tell you that you can learn through surgical training to get by with less sleep.

Man With His Head In The SandI have CEO friends who schedule exercise time, who worry about their diet, who worry about meditation, who’ve learned to take short cat naps – a variety of things you can use to be able to put in more hours.

I think that energy is certainly one quality that people can build and develop.

Another quality is the ability to tolerate conflict.

I think most people are conflict averse and run away from conflict.

Therefore this puts them at a huge disadvantage so that when some people are tough, they retreat.

Conflict Resolution Through Empathy

I think another personal quality, which is really very important, is the ability to put yourself in the other person’s place, to see the world through their eyes, through their perspective.

How are they getting rewarded, how are they getting evaluated?

One of the stories I tell often is about my friend Laura Esserman who runs the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

She was sponsoring a digital mammography van that went all over the city of San Francisco, and provided mammography services to poor women.

She did not win a lot of friends in her UC San Francisco facility for doing this because every time they discovered a woman with a suspicious lump, they would come to be treated at UC and reimbursed under Medicaid, which pays about half the cost.

She said, “Why are all these people opposing me?”

I said, “You’ve got a CFO who’s trying to build the Mission Bay Medical Center, and trying to issue bonds and indebtedness.

You’ve got a head of the department of surgery who’s worried about that fact that surgery is first of all running a deficit, and secondly why is surgery sponsoring mammography, which out to be part of the radiology department in any event.”

She finally said, “You’re right.”

She said, “I’ve failed to look at everybody’s point of view.”

Anybody who opposed her she thought they were just some kind of Neanderthal who didn’t really care about human beings, but it goes to this issue of we all face conflicting objectives and their issues.

Obviously UC needs to be in a financially sound position, and that the head of the surgery department needs to make sure that the budget is in good shape.

To the extent that you’re able to see how other people are looking at the world, and to take those points of view into account as you construct your own strategies and actions, you’re going to be much more effective and more successful.

Did You Make New Friends This Weekend?

Dr. Denker: You know, you talk too in your book about some important skills that people need to get power.

You talk about asking for help, and building social networks, and being able to speak with power.

Could we talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Pfeffer: It’s kind of funny.

Making New Connections Chain LinkWhen I would come into class, and I would teach on Monday and Friday, I would always ask the students how they had spent their weekend.

It became kind of a little joke.

They would say, “Of course we spent our weekend with our close, personal friends,” their roommates, their classmates, and so on and so forth.

What I would always ask them is, “If you spend all your time with your current friends, how will you ever make new ones?”

There is a lot of research that suggests that some of the most useful ties for us are people to whom we’re weakly tied, not close friends, not family, not people that we work with on a daily basis, but much more casual acquaintances.

The reason for this is that the people to whom we are closely tied probably tend to travel in the same social circles that we do. They know pretty much the same people and the same subjects, and therefore they provide us with relatively redundant information.

Whereas people to whom we’re less closely tied, with whom we have relatively weak ties, permit us to access new and novel social networks and new and novel pieces of information.

I think people ought to figure out not only, “Who do we know, and who are we comfortable with,” but, “Who do we need to know?”

We don’t need to know them necessarily closely or intimately, but we need at least to have some casual acquaintance with them so that we can call on them for help, and ask them for advice, and ask them for information.

I think people need to build, for most people, not everybody, they need to build a broader and more diverse network than in many instances they currently have.

Dr. Denker: There’s no reason why anybody can’t do it, but it basically involves getting a little bit out of your comfort zone.

Dr. Pfeffer: Sure.

It goes to this issue of building a network and getting out your comfort zone.

There was a person from Colombia who was involved arranging a study trip for people who were going to visit Colombia as part of a South American study trip.

I saw her and met her, and I said, “How are you going about doing this?”

Her answer was, “Well, I’m sending emails to the assistants of CEOs,” and I kind of laughed because I thought that was funny.

I said, “Why don’t you call the CEOs themselves.”

She said, “Well I wouldn’t know what to say. I couldn’t.”

I said, “Well, you know you’re in the United States. You’re in California. People in Colombia might be interested in what’s going on. You’re getting a business degree. People might be interested in business education.” I said, ” Why don’t you try it?” She was so shy. She refused to do it.

I said, “Do one. Call one. As opposed to sending an email to the assistant, try to arrange a phone appointment and talk to the CEO and see how that goes.”

Of course, it went extremely well, and after that, that’s all she did, and wound up of course building a much more effective network with the CEOs rather than their assistants.

Also actually getting job offers for her return to Colombia out of the experience.

That real epic illustrates an important thing, which is that you sometimes have to push yourself a little, and to do things that you’re not necessarily comfortable with doing.

One of the stories I tell in the books, somebody said to me one day, “A lot of the things that you’re talking about are not natural.”

I looked at the guy, and I said, “Do you ski?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “The first time you got on skis, did it feel natural?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, if you learned to ski, you can learn to do this also.”

I think the point is that just as skiing, or ice skating, or speaking a foreign language, or the first time you pick up a violin or play a piano, none of this feels natural at the beginning, but just as people have learned to play musical instruments, or to ski, or to ice skate, or to roller-skate, you can learn to do this as well, but you have to do exactly as you do in learning any new thing, push yourself a little beyond where you’re comfortable being.

==> Read part 2 of this interview here


Sculpture image courtesy of Flickr

Steve Jobs image from www.wallgc.com

Gummy bear image courtesy of Flickr

About The Author:

Rob Denker is the Managing Principal of rd&partners. He helps leaders consistently see tangible, real-world benefits by making behavioral changes that are directly linked to the organization’s strategic initiatives, and their own effectiveness as a leader. Connect with Rob and rd&partners on LinkedIn.

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