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A guidebook for moving up the corporate ladder

“Almost anything is possible in attaining positions of power,” begins Jeffrey Pfeffer’s new book. “You can get yourself into a high-power position even under the most unlikely circumstances if you have the requisite skill.”

As “Power: Why Some People Have It — and Others Don’t” makes clear, “skill” does not necessarily have anything to do with being exceptionally knowledgeable or good at one’s job. Instead, skill lies in knowing about the levers of power: where they are, how to pull them and what to do next.

Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, is a longtime observer of the corporate world, and knows of what he speaks. He writes fluently on his subject, using anonymous case studies of people he has known over the years.

After discussing how people should prepare themselves to achieve power, Pfeffer then looks at such essential skills as how to get noticed by the right people, how to build networks with the right people, how to build a reputation and how to overcome opposition.

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These skills are described in detail with plenty of practical suggestions. If any readers fancy a career in greasy pole-climbing, this is the book for you. Like all of Pfeffer’s books, this one published by HarperBusiness is highly readable, interesting and at times entertaining. On one level, it is also deeply honest.

“Power” is not a very fashionable word these days. Most powerful people, especially in business, try quite hard not to appear too powerful. Democracy, inclusiveness, sharing, being mutually supportive; these are supposed to be the most valued qualities in an executive.

So it is actually quite refreshing to read a book that talks openly about power and acknowledges its uses in frank terms. Powerful people, Pfeffer says, tend to be the ones who get things done. They are also wealthier, live longer and have a better quality of life. So power is good.

Yet there is also a strong streak of intellectual dishonesty running through the book. Power has consequences, and apart from one chapter — a very good and thoughtful chapter — on the consequences of power for those who have it, Pfeffer never comes to terms with the uses and abuses of power. Nor does he describe what the wielding of power by one person does to others around him or her.

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Partly, this is because he never really explains what power is. I looked through the book in vain for a definition. But in most standard definitions, power means control over other things, and particularly other people. It means getting other people to do what you want them to do, and it can mean getting them to do things they themselves do not want to do.

Any observer of Pfeffer’s experience and knowledge must know this. So why the omission?

None of the people in the case studies acts dishonestly or unethically, nor are they even particularly ruthless. This means the book contrasts unfavorably with older works such as Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” or Eustache de Refuge’s “Treatise on the Court,” or the more recent studies of power by Manfred Kets de Vries that go deep into the psychology of power.

These works discuss power as a moral issue and talk about the consequences of having power and its morally corrosive effects on those who have it. As Lord Acton said, power corrupts.

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But there is no acknowledgement of that here. This book is about getting power and keeping it, nothing more. It assumes that power is benign and benevolent, and we know that this is not always the case.

That said, this is never less than an interesting read, and some chapters are particularly good.

The section on the reasons people lose power, for example, ought to be required reading for would-be leaders. Many of them are so intent on reaching the top that they have no real idea of what they will do when they finally get there.

They either become prey to inertia, so paralyzed by the responsibilities of power that they fail to act decisively, or they fall prey to factions among their followers and are destroyed. The chapter on networking also makes some useful points about building networks with the right people and the consequences of choosing the wrong ones.

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This sounds like common sense, but choosing the wrong allies in an organization can be a sure way to failure; networking partners have to be chosen with care. It reminded me of a recent novel from India, “Dork,” by Sidin Vadukut. It is the tale of a trainee management consultant with an unerring ability to network with the wrong people.

Pfeffer’s book includes an excellent summary that makes an important point: If you do not take power over your own life, someone else will. It is up to you to protect your own life, your career, your future; no one else will do it for you.

Perhaps for that reason alone, this book is worth reading.

Book reviewer Morgen Witzel is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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