Monday, January 16, 2012

Power: Why some people have it --- and others don't

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

I found this book incredibly interesting.  The book is well-written, extremely well organized, and well-supported (16 pages of notes) in addition to hundreds of relevant, important, and pungent examples.  I found the information to be honest, forthright, and  right on target.

I tended to agree with Pfeffer’s negative evaluations of other books on leadership (even though it may be a bit self-serving), but after reading Pfeffer’s various suggestions for gaining power, you realize that so many other author’s books lack the force, bite, sharpness, and honesty that Pfeffer delivers.

One thing I felt as I was reading was that I pictured myself in a college classroom listening to a well-informed, interesting lecturer.  There are great examples, and the book is pretty easy to read.  It should be clear that you don’t have to be a college student or an academic to appreciate Pfeffer’s information and insights.

Another thing I discovered from reading this book is something I learned rather early when I was teaching speech-communication classes — especially those sections dealing with persuasion.  At one point I was asked by one of my students (and it occurred several times throughout my career), “Couldn’t someone take the ideas and principles you are teaching and become another Hitler?”  The answer is clearly yes.

The best way (perhaps the only way) I found to counter or address these concerns is to talk extensively about ethics — how to properly and ethically use the information and ideas they were learning.  Also, a unit or section on ethics exists in every textbook on public speaking or persuasion.  There is no way to guarantee that such messages get through to students; however, class discussions, coverage on examinations, in addition to such units or sections in textbooks, is the way we approach the ethics issue.  There is no discussion of ethics in this book; perhaps, there should be.

Pfeffer’s suggestions for gaining power far exceed any of the persuasive strategies I taught in college, and someone bent on using his ideas in a negative fashion could certainly wreak more havoc in a shorter amount of time than they could with persuasion alone.  If anyone, after reading this book, thinks this is all common sense or skills that any opportunist might use, then I beg to differ.  They are not reading Pfeffer closely or they are not understanding his suggestions.  (—or, they are already wreaking havoc!)

I found this to be an interesting statement: “Many studies of the predictors of career success, focusing on both the general population and specific subpopulations such as business school graduates, have found that mental aptitude correlates somewhat with grades in school but has virtually no ability to explain who rises to the top” (p. 55).

I absolutely loved his use of current examples such as Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Willie Brown, Ishan Gupta, Caroline Kennedy, Frank Stanton, Oliver North, Barack Obama, and many others.

His Chapter 7, “Acting and Speaking with Power (pp. 125-146), caught my attention because of my background in speech communication.  This is, indeed, the chapter that traces Lt. Colonel Oliver North’s return to power after being indicted on 16 felony counts, “including accepting illegal gratuities, aiding and abetting the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and destroying documents and evidence” (p. 125).  Also, in this chapter, the comparison between North and Donald Kennedy (former president of Stanford University) and the manner in which they testified before a congressional investigating committee is offered. I found it eye-opening, and Pfeffer’s comment about it is rich in meaning: “We choose how we will act and talk, and those decisions are consequential for acquiring and holding on to power” (p. 128).

Did you know this?  “Although the research literature shows the interview is not a reliable or valid selection mechanism, it is almost universally used . . . To come across effectively, we need to master how to convey power.  We need to act, and speak, with power” (p. 129).

Using examples of Peter Ueberroth, Andy Grove, Gary Loverman, and Rahm Emanuel (among others), Pfeffer clearly demonstrates how to act and speak with power using interruption, contesting the premises of the discussion, using persuasive language (and Max Atkinson’s linguistic techniques).

Although Pfeffer advocates using “humor to the extent possible and appropriate” and even cites novelist Salman Rushie saying, “If you make people laugh, you can tell them anything” (p. 145), there isn’t a great deal of humor in this 273-page book.  It could use some; however, it is direct, strong, straightforward, and powerful.  I recommend it.

The book, Power: Why some people have it — and others don’t can be purchased at

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