Power: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: June 29th, 2011 by bobmorris

Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don’t
Jeffrey Pfeffer
Harper Business (2010)

Although Pfeffer does not invoke the core metaphor from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, I think it is especially relevant to the various misconceptions about power that Pfeffer refutes. The situation in Plato’s allegory is that people are located in a darkened cave watching shadows dance on a wall. (The source of light is outside the cave.) They think they are watching ultimate realities. Rather, what they observe are images, yes, but also distortions. The same is true of the “just world hypothesis” that the world is predictable, comprehensible, and therefore potentially controllable. Worse yet, it implies that “people get what they deserve; that is, that the good people are likely to be rewarded and the bad to be punished. Most important,” Pfeffer adds, “the phenomenon works in reverse: if someone is seen to prosper, there is a social psychological tendency for observers to decide that the lucky person must have done something to deserve his good fortune.”

Pfeffer insists that the world is neither just nor unjust: it is. He also challenges “leadership literature” (including his contributions to it) because celebrity CEOs who tout their own careers as models tend to “gloss over power plays they actually used to get to the top” whereas authors such as Pfeffer offer “prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved.” Pfeffer also suggests that those aspiring to power “are often their own worst enemy, and not just in the arena of building power” because of self-handicapping, a reluctance (perhaps even a refusal) to take initiatives that may fail and thereby diminish one’s self-image. “I have come to believe that the biggest single effect I can have is to get people to try to become powerful.” Pfeffer wrote this book as an operations manual for the acquisition and retention of power. Of even greater importance, in my opinion, he reveals the ultimate realities of what power is…and isn’t…and thereby eliminates the shadows of illusion and self-deception that most people now observe in the “caves” of their own current circumstances.

As is his SOP in all of the other books he has authored or co-authored, Pfeffer cites an abundance of research studies to support what are therefore evidence-driven observations, insights, and recommendations. For example, consider this passage that appears near the end of his book: “Michael Marmot’s study of 18,000 British civil servants – all people working in office jobs – in the same society – uncovered that people at the bottom of the hierarchy had four times the risk of death as those at the top. [Check out Marmot’s The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health, published by Times Books.] Controlling for risk factors such as smoking or obesity did not make the social gradient in health disappear, nor did statistically controlling for longevity of one’s parents. As Marmot concludes, `Social circumstances in life predict health.’ So seek power as if your life depends on it. Because it does.” (Page 236)

Much of great value has been written about how to establish and then sustain a “healthy” organization. The fact remains, that cannot be achieved without enough people who possess sufficient power. In my opinion, Jeffrey Pfeffer is determined (obsessed?) to increase the number of such people, one reader at a time. Hopefully those who read this book will help others to acquire the power they need to be successful, influential, and most important of all healthy

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