Terry R. Bacon: An interview by Bob Morris

Terry R. Bacon


Terry R. Bacon is a Scholar in Residence in the Korn/Ferry Institute.  Previously, he was founder and CEO of Lore International Institute.  He has a B.S. in engineering from West Point and a PhD in literary studies from The American University.  He has also studied business and leadership at Goddard College, Roosevelt University, University of Chicago, Wharton, Stanford, and Harvard.  He is a prolific author and speaker, having written more than one hundred articles, white papers, and books, including Selling to Major Accounts, Winning Behavior, The Behavioral Advantage, Adaptive Coaching, Powerful Proposals, What People Want, and most recently,  The Elements of Power:  Lessons on Leadership and Influence (AMACOM, January 2011). Bacon’s next book Elements of Influence, will be published in July 2011.

He is chairman of the Fort Lewis College Foundation board and president of Music in the Mountains, a summer classical music festival in Durango, Colorado. During the last four years, Leadership Excellence has named him one of the top 100 thinkers on leadership in the world. You can learn more about him and his ideas and works at http://www.terryrbacon.com/, http://www.theelementsofpower.com/, or http://www.booksbyterryrbacon.com/.

Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, The Elements of Power, a few general questions. First, other than a family member, who has had the most influence on your personal development?

Bacon: A variety of teachers and mentors through the years.  I couldn’t site one particular person.  It’s more like a loose community of caring people.  However, I found reading about the lives of Sir Thomas More and physicist Richard Feynman to be particularly inspirational for me.

Morris: On your professional development?

Bacon: Probably every author of every good book on leadership and business I’ve ever read, including Michael Useem, Dan Goleman, David Maister, Peter Drucker, John Kotter, Warren Bennis, Garry Wills, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Michael Porter, James MacGregor Burns, and a host of others.  I’m a voracious reader, and the key thoughts of those books stick with me.

Morris: To what extent did your education, training, and experience at the United States Military Academy prepare you for what awaited you, following active duty?

Bacon: The military academy had a profound effect on me.  It taught me leadership, decision making, strategic thinking, responsibility, adaptability, integrity, and an engineer’s mindset, all of which helped me develop as a man and prepared me for the leadership roles I’ve played since active duty.

Morris: In your opinion, are business opportunities today better, worse, or about the same as they were (let’s say) ten years ago? Please explain.

Bacon: I think the opportunities today are the same as they were ten years, a hundred years ago, and a thousand years ago.  Opportunity is what you create when you have the gumption to make something out of nothing, when you see possibilities others don’t, and when you are brazen enough to break with tradition and courageous enough to see it through.  That existed long ago and it exists in abundance today.

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you began your business career years ago?

Bacon: I wish I’d known earlier in my career how to assess talent and select the best people for every job.  And I wish I knew how to make the tough people decisions sooner.  Businesses thrive when you have the right people in place and decay when you retain the wrong people.  But making the tough calls is difficult for most younger managers/leaders, especially if you are a “people person.”

Morris: What is the primary mission of the Korn/Ferry Institute? How specifically does it fulfill that mission?

Bacon: The Institute’s mission is to develop and implement world-class intellectual property to improve our clients’ acquisition, development, and retention of top talent.

Morris: Most people I know claim that the most valuable lessons they learned were from personal experience; more specifically, from failure rather than from success. Is that also true of you? Please explain.

Bacon: Yes, I think you learn more from failures—if you actively seek to understand why they happened, avoid focusing on blame, and apply the lessons immediately.  I’ve always told people that it’s okay to make mistakes.  If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t pushing yourself.  But it’s not okay to make the same mistake twice.  Mistakes and failures are acceptable as long as you learn from them and apply the lessons immediately to improve the business.

Morris: Please explain when and who you first became involved with Music in the Mountains.

Bacon: I became involved with Music in the Mountains as a patron, then a donor, and then a board member.

Morris: What about Fort Lewis College?

Bacon: I’m a strong supporter of higher education.  I became involved with FLC first as a visiting speaker and later as a board member of the foundation.

Morris: What is the most important single lesson that for-profit organizations can learn from not-for-profit organizations? Vice versa?

Bacon: How to engage people through inspiration rather than command and control.  Non-profits thrive when people believe in them and are motivated to donate or volunteer in service of the cause.  For-profit organizations could learn a lot from that.

Morris: Now please focus on The Elements of Power. In it, you suggest that there are eleven sources of power. Which is the most difficult to obtain? To sustain? Why?

Bacon: The principal difficulty in obtaining any power source is time.  It takes decades for children to build the knowledge and skill they need to be successful adults.  Expressiveness also requires considerable time and practice.  It takes time to build a network, time to learn how to acquire and use information, and time to build high role power in organizations.  It also takes time to build a reputation, which is one of the strongest power sources.  One of the most distinguishing of the power sources is will.  People who have strong will are highly self-motivated, and they are at the far end of the bell curve because most people don’t have strong will.  A vast number of people are dreamers but do nothing to realize their dreams.  It’s rarer to find that artist or entrepreneur or musician or athlete who is driven to create something new or perform in a way that’s never been done before or build a thriving organization—and has the capacity and persistence to see it through.  Some people start strong but peter out when the going gets tough (as inevitably it does).  So will power is probably the most difficult power source to obtain and sustain—and it comes entirely from within.

Morris: I will identify one of the sources. First, in essence, what is the power of knowledge? Who offers an excellent example?

Bacon: Knowledge power is the power that comes from having a great deal of relevant knowledge about a subject other people value and being highly skilled at something.  Exemplars include Tiger Woods, Jerry Seinfeld, Chopin, Beethoven, Picasso, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, and a host of others.  Anyone who is noted for their expertise, skills, or accomplishments has high knowledge power.

Morris: An exemplar of the power of eloquence?

Bacon: Great speakers like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, and Barack Obama.  But also Adolf Hitler (a captivating speaker in his time with his audience).  And also great writers (communicators) like Shakespeare, Milton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and so on.  People who express themselves eloquently.

Morris: Of the power of relationships?

Bacon: Anyone who is capable of building strong and close relationships with others, which includes most people.

Morris: Of attraction?

Bacon: Again, numerous people. Anyone who is charismatic:  Gandhi and King, on the one hand.  On the other, anyone who is physically gifted:  Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Helen of Troy (the face that launched a thousand ships), Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Cary Grant, Clark Gable.  Today, Megan Fox, Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber.

Morris: Of character?

Bacon: Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama.  Exemplars of courage and integrity.

Morris: Role and resources?

Bacon: Powerful world leaders like Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy.  Powerful business leaders like Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Li Ka Shing, Rupert Murdock, Kerry Packer, Lakshmi Mittal, Larry Page, George Soros, Sam Walton, Donald Trump, and so on.

Morris: Information?

Bacon: Larry Page again (co-founder of Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Fareed Zakaria, and anyone who commands a lot of information, like Ben Bernanke (chairman of the Fed).

Morris: Networking?

Bacon: People who know many people like Rahm Emanuel, Ron Meyer (president of Universal Studios), Duncan Niederauer (president of the NY Stock Exchange), and so on.

Morris: The power in organizations?

Bacon: CEOs, members of the CEO’s direct staff, key line executives.

Morris: The power of will?

Bacon: Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Ted Turner, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart, Mary Kay Ash, and many others.   Artists like Picasso, Manet, Cage, etc.  And humanitarians like Jeremy Gilley and Sister Mary Scullion.

Morris: In your opinion, why are so many people uncomfortable with the idea of seeking power and yet they constantly complain about not having any?

Bacon: To some people, power represents an evil or undesirable aspect of human experience.  People who have suffered at the hands of others or been controlled by unscrupulous people in powerful positions may distrust power and seek to avoid it.  At the same time, they bridle at lacking power because they can’t control or influence events or situations as much as they would like to.  Also, for some people, obtaining real power seems impossible.  They resent what they don’t have and, as a defense mechanism, show disdain for power.  It’s like an unattractive person who scoffs at beautiful people, saying things like “beauty is only skin deep.”  People sometimes belittle what they don’t have (and seemingly can’t have) as a way to compensate psychologically from the lack of it.  By belittling what they don’t have, they provide an excuse for not going after it (and potentially failing).  Or perhaps they are simply disgusted with how the rich and powerful behave (that holier than thou attitude) but at the same time wish they were themselves rich and powerful.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Elements of Power, you include “profiles” of dozens of powerful people. They include Bill Gates, Maya Angelou, Richard Cheney, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffet. However different they are in most other respects, what do they and others profiled all share in common?

Bacon: What almost all powerful people have in common is the desire to be influential, the desire to make a difference.  They want to be able to control their lives, and power enables them to do that.  It gives them more choices.  For some, it adds meaning to their lives.  It validates their self-worth.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, most of these people have a high need for power, and power is about exercising leadership and having control.  The powerless, in contrast, have very little control and exert little influence.

Morris: Of all of those you have studied, whom did you find most fascinating? Why?

Bacon: I’m not a person who identifies one object or person as the “most” of anything.  For instance, I don’t have a favorite color.  I like lots of colors.  I don’t have a favorite movie.  I like hundreds of films for different reasons.  And I didn’t find any of the people I profiled “most fascinating.”  I found all of them interesting or fascinating in different ways and for different reasons.  That’s why I chose to write about them and not other people.

Morris: Most admirable? Why?

Bacon: Again, I don’t have “mosts.”  But I found Eleanor Roosevelt admirable for her strength of character.  She endured a lot and contributed significantly—ten times more than normal people.  Jeff Bezos—a fascinating study in entrepreneurship and creativity.  Amazing guy.  Same with Bill Gates.  They turned nothings into significant somethings and changed the world as we knew it.  Dr. Peter Pronovost—took a simple idea and revolutionized medicine in a way that is saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars.  Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt—who could thrive on their money and egos (as Charlie Sheen has) but instead live relatively low profile lives and help a huge number of less fortunate people (I could add George Clooney to that list; he also has a strong social conscience, as does Bono).  And of course I admire Sister Mary and Jeremy Gilley for what they’ve accomplished through sheer will power.

Morris: In Chapter 10, you explain how to develop sources of power to establish and protect a base of power within an organization. Briefly, what is your advice?

Bacon: First, develop your own personal power sources:  knowledge, expressiveness, character, history, and attraction.  Then build your network, information, and reputation within the organization (you build reputation largely by good great work and consistently getting results).  Understand the prevailing leadership paradigm in the organization and align yourself with it.  Finally, know the right people and develop strong relationships with the ones who can act as your mentor and guide.  Be where the action is, with the people who are making it happen (and be one of them).

Morris: What do Ray Kroc, Gert Boyle, and Tom Monaghan share in common?

Bacon: They are entrepreneurs who started with relatively little and created something substantial, principally through the force of their will power.

Morris: What are the most common diminishers of power? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Bacon: It depends on the power source.  But the fastest way to lose power is to do something that reveals a serious character flaw.  The next fastest way to lose power is to make egregious mistakes and try to shift the blame to others.  The third fastest way is to alienate people through a runaway ego or other distasteful personality traits.

Morris: I will now mention a series of people you discuss in the book. Please suggest what can be learned about power from each. First, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Bacon: They illustrate the high end of attraction power, that being attractive can boost a person’s influence by a substantial margin.  They also illustrate that likeability and attraction are a powerful combination, and that character plays an important role in attraction.  They are not the stereotypical beautiful people who have vast egos and care about no one but themselves.  On the contrary, much of their influence stems from their charitable work and contributions around the world to people less fortunate than they are.

Morris: Ann Coulter

Bacon: She illustrates that a person can be physically attractive and attractive in other ways (through accomplishments, for instance) but, on the whole, be unattractive because of radical or polarizing views.  What she says and what she stands for are reprehensible to many people, so attraction is not a power source for her; it’s a power drain.

Morris: George W. Bush

Bacon: President Bush illustrates how a person of enormous power in most other ways can have his power diminished (even ridiculed) when he lacks expressiveness power (the ability to communicate in a compelling way).

Morris: Peter Pronovost

Bacon: He illustrates the power of information, particularly in accessing and distributing information in ways that have impact on others.   Morris: Aung San Suu Kyi

Bacon: She is a great illustration of the power of reputation.  The junta that rules Burma dares not act against her too strongly because she is held in such high esteem in her own country and around the world. 

Morris: You devote the final chapter of The Elements of Power to explaining how almost anyone can become more powerful. How about empowering others?  What does that involve and require? Can almost anyone develop the power to do that effectively? Please explain.

Bacon: Yes, you can empower others by helping them develop their eleven sources of power.  Teachers and mentors do it when they educate people or help them develop their skills.  Parents and religious or moral leaders do it when they help younger people build character.  Helping others develop their power sources means helping them understand what those power sources are, why they are important, and how to build them.  You really can’t delegate power to someone except by promoting them to positions of greater power and authority or by giving them access to key resources that other people need.  But the role most of us take in empowering others is to help them enrich the sources of power they already have.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Bacon: I am often asked about the relationship between power and charisma.  By definition, charismatic people have a great deal of power.  Where does that power come from?  The answer is that it comes from five of the power sources I discuss:  knowledge, attraction, reputation, expressiveness, and will.  Normal people are attracted to leaders who are high in each of these power sources.

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Terry Bacon cordially invites you to check out these websites:





To learn more about Music in the Mountains, please click here.

For more information about Fort Lewis College, please click here.

For more about the foundation, please lick here.

You can learn more about the Durango Arts Center by clicking here.


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