The 48 Laws of Power

by Robert Greene

Published by Penguin Books in 2000 available in hardback, paperback and Kindle versions; mine was the Kindle version

 

I found this book to be a quick read, well written and very interesting.  In it Robert Greene describes a playbook to power that many use and quite frankly many need.  It is however, a narrow view of power.  I like to think of power as a neutral topic in and of itself.  Power is what you need to get things done.

 

When the topic of power is raised, all too often the thoughts immediately jump to the narrower topic of the abuse of power…which offends nearly all of us.  However, think of the power some others had, who were not abusive such as the power of Ghandi, or the power of Mother Teresa.  These people were able to accomplish a great deal and are held in high regard by almost everyone, yet they used power, in some form, “to get things done”. 

 

Which brings me to my first criticism of this book. It is not a book about power in general, it is a book about using power to manipulate and control others.  It is what I call the “dark side of power” that is used solely to manipulate, control, and win at all costs.  I would have preferred to read about not only this type of power, but others as well.  Mostly this book is the playbook for creating and maintaining position power.  It is also the playbook for manipulating and controlling others for self-serving reasons.  There is hardly a shred of gallantry or service to others mentioned, it is all about what you need to do obtain and retain power, and “at expense of others” is sometimes stated, nearly always applied.  It is the play book of despots, tyrants, megalomaniacs and malignant narcissists…….and many of the politicians in the US today.

 

What about other roads to “getting things done”?  Early in my management career with Chevron, I was taught there are four centers of power, literally four styles of leadership.  They were personality, position, competence and integrity.  That is -- people would follow you -- and you could get things done if you:

  1. Could cajole them or otherwise impress them; in a phrase they liked you, or:

  2. Could have influence over their pay, promotion and inclusion in the group; in a phrase if you had position power or

  3. Could convince them you knew what to do, hence they would respect your skill inventory or you could lead through demonstrated competence;

  4. Could convince them you had a good idea, you were above board and win or lose you would back them up.  often referred to as referent power or leading by integrity.  Of which is see very little today, certainly among our political leaders.

 

This book is all about item 2 above….and not much else.   As for type 1, 3 and 4……..it is mostly antithetical to those styles of leadership and power.

 

Some examples of the 48 Laws, include: Law 3 – Conceal your intentions; Law 4 – Always say less than necessary; Law 7 – Get others to work for you, but always take the credit; and Law 14 – Pose as a friend, but work as a spy.  There are dozens more and they are just rules to manipulate, control and even marginalize others, mostly for only short-term gains.  In the short term they may work, but soon enough people will cease to trust you, so this style is not conducive to long term relationships. 

 

There are other laws that are even more dark such as Law 12 – Learn to keep people dependent upon you and Law 17 – Keep others in suspended terror.  Cultivate an air of unpredictability.

 

At Quality Consultants, our field of expertise is lean manufacturing and especially the topic of lean leadership. You can read more about lean leadership by reading about it in my book, “How To Implement Lean Manufacturing, 2nd Ed.”, or in White Papers I have published.  Go to our website www.qc-ep.com and on the left-hand menu you will see “White Paper”, it will take you to an index of white papers and you will find several on leadership and lean leadership.  And as a playbook for lean leadership the “48 Laws of Power”, is as close as I can recommend to “exactly what NOT to do”.  IF you are a manager in a manufacturing plant in America, The descriptions  of the use of power in this book is entirely antithetical to the style of leadership and use of power that you will need if you wish to survive and prosper.

 

However, there are a few laws of power in this book that are far more universally needed, independent upon your style of leadership.  For example: Law 35 – Master the use of timing; and Law 29 – Plan all the way to the end.  Those are good advice for all in power.  However, make no mistake, universal rules like these are the distinct minority report and clearly not the theme of this book which is centered on the dark side of power, whose objective is to manipulate, control, marginalize and win at all costs.

 

I have two additional criticisms of the book.  Although he is prescriptive in nature, several times the author will recommend directly opposite approaches to a situation, yet not tell you the circumstances under which you should do one or the other.  For example, in Law 4- Always say less than necessary, in the discussion he says,

     “There are times when it is unwise to be silent. Silence can arouse suspicion and even insecurity, especially in your superiors; a vague or ambiguous 

     comment can open you up to interpretations you had not bargained for. Silence and saying less than necessary must be practiced with caution, then, and in

     the right situations. It is occasionally wiser to imitate the court jester, who plays the fool but knows he is smarter than the king.”

 

And has no guidance to when to talk a little and when to talk a lot. 

 

Next I find his use of examples strange; often they are from some obscure  Chinese dynasty from 600  B.C. or other obscure situation.  IF these laws are so prevalent, and true, why not use examples that  resonate more with the leadership.   As I read this I could find examples form people like recent political figures in both US and abroad as well as business leaders like Ford and Vanderbilt.

 

Yet I recommend this book for three reasons. 

  • First it is a good discussion of this one type of power.  Unfortunately, he portrays this as the only kind of power.  That is both inaccurate and antithetical to good relationships.

  • Second, although in most circumstances this is not the type of power you should use, it does have its place.  Let me give you an example.  I was in serious negotiations with the Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality and to my company the consequences were plus or minus $25 million.  I could immediately tell they had no interest in the environment; their only interests were political in nature. Not coincidentally the Director was well versed in using these techniques.  There was no way to have an even-handed discussion focused on the issues, so I clearly recall using some of these techniques and counter-techniques as I negotiated with them.  Knowing the techniques, I was able to spot them and counter them.  So even if this is not your style, you should know about these techniques, so they cannot be effectively used on you. 

  • Finally, it is extremely relevant for all that is happening in the US today…..and earlier as well, but strikingly now with the huge divisions we see in our country.  This is the playbook of Donald Trump.  If you read this book, you can immediately see his style of leadership and learn a great deal about his personality and its many dysfunctions as well.  If you have any doubt this is Trump’s playbook pay attention to Law 20 –

                    LAW 20 - DO NOT COMMIT TO ANYONE:

                    It is the fool who always rushes to take sides. Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself (emphasis mine). By maintaining your

                    independence, you become the master of others—playing people against one another, making them pursue you.

Sound familiar????

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