Don’t Take the Wrong Paths to Power

September 26, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – Forget the common good – it’s your own good that matters. Seek power, seize it, and hoard it. If you have to bruise egos along the way, so what? No one will care or even remember how you got to the top.

These are tips for career success from Stanford Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who teaches a provocative class called “Paths to Power.” Among other things, Jeffrey warns students to avoid getting unduly slowed down by ethics, modesty or ideals. Getting to the C-Suite isn’t a journey for do-gooders, he says, and worse, an overactive conscience can be “dangerous to one’s organizational survival.”

Let me say that Jeffrey is a world-class social scientist with 13 books under his belt. But I’m counting on my 40 years as a business leader to tell me what works in the real world; and if it’s about leading an organization to success, I’d bet on my approach over his 99 times out of 100.

His perspective on the no-holds-barred pursuit of power is both seductive and toxic. It can start students on an IV-drip that gets them hooked on getting ahead, even if it means bullying, hubris and ruthlessness. Your very health is at stake, too, he writes in his book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t. Your “life depends on getting power”: the less power you have, the more stress you’ll be under, and that doesn’t end well.

Pfeffer cites many colorful personalities who have played the power game with legendary tenacity: Steve Jobs, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Moses. But these were individuals who could get away with power-mad behavior. They called their own shots, ran roughshod over former allies, and often stood alone.

Yet few who have worked with teams, or been in leadership roles in modern enterprises would recognize, much less condone, such an extreme approach to leadership. In enlightened businesses, power isn’t grabbed, it’s created and distributed. It’s not hunted down and hoarded, it’s cultivated – by building relationships and developing trust. And it’s not about “appearing competent” as Pfeffer recommends. Rather, it’s about being the best leader and team member you can.

Evolutionary biologists have a thought experiment for the relative power of selfishness versus generosity: two groups are placed on separate islands with no way to communicate. On one island, it’s everyone for himself. On the other, everyone works together to achieve broader goals. Wait a few hundred years, and you’ll find two very different societies – one in a state of constant, near-psychopathic conflict, the other successful and harmonious. As the biologists concluded, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

In the same way, any business, group or team that wants to succeed for the long pull must rely on collaboration, innovation and high productivity – the fruits of sharing power, of teamwork, and of diverse points of view. Enabling people to do their best work generally means distributing power to those who earn it.

You can choose your own “path to power,” and what you do along the way. Here are a few thoughts that I would recommend for your journey:

1) First take control – of yourself. Control yourself and your own life choices, then worry about influence with others. Good self-control is the basis for a calm but confident projection of power, one that doesn’t rely on how much status you’ve “secured” in an organization.

2) The power of groups trumps that of individuals. Exploiting relationships and playing hardball politics for personal glory is a ticket to tenuous influence. True power comes from treating other people with respect with the understanding that, in return, they’ll grant (and responsibly assume) power. This is a good-faith transaction – a pact – that requires more than one person to agree to it. Watch out when Pfeffer says, “Don’t worry about how your efforts to build your path to power are affecting your employer” – you won’t last long in the real world with that attitude.

3) Get noticed — but for the right reasons. Superstars do obtain power and influence. But rather than stepping into the spotlight every time something good happens, the most trusted leaders know it isn’t all about them. Their power and influence flow from sharing credit, accepting blame, working hard, being competent, and exhibiting judgment, character and wisdom. It’s impossible not to notice people who operate with that attitude. Pfeffer’s advice that “your first responsibility is to ensure that those at higher levels… know what you’re accomplishing” is a recipe for eventual alienation.

4) Seeking power isn’t bad — ruthlessness is. The ruthless pursuit of power violates a core principle of ethics: Kant’s Categorical Imperative. As Kant put it, “Act only on that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, don’t do it yourself if you don’t want everyone else to follow your example. A benighted self-interest is toxic; an enlightened one is empowering.

5) You can’t get rid of every scorpion, but you can avoid them. It’s one thing to teach young leaders that power-mad scorpions exist in the business world (they do) but it’s another to teach them to become scorpions. It is good to know how to deal with them, but even better to steer clear of dangerous situations, and leave those who would sting you to deal with their own kind.

Pfeffer’s right about one thing: there are a thousand pathways to power and influence. If you are a lone wolf seeking power by any means, you may gain influence for a while at a cost of long-run success, and happiness. Success doesn’t come from stepping on toes and hustling behind backs, but from stepping up, and having peoples’ backs. Exploiting others on a “Paths to Power” quest may get you rolling fast, but it won’t be long before you notice that you’re heading downhill – and taking your team with you.

By Joel Peterson