Micro Book Review – Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t


Understanding how to ethically attain and wield power is an important skill.

Nancy Euske, a former business school professor at Berkeley, covered this topic when we trained emerging charter school leaders at NSNO. 

Many of the leaders we trained were used to measuring their success by their own individual achievements, rather than by how they influenced other adults. Those that did not learn to ethically use power often stuggled as charter school leaders. 

So I’ve thought about power a lot over the past decade, but probably not as much as Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Stanford business school professor who wrote this book

What does Pfeffer have to say about power?

The Text [1]

“The evidence showed that this group, the managers primarily interested in power [as opposed to individual achievement or need for affiliation], were the most effective not only achieved positions of influence inside companies but also in accomplishing their jobs.”

What is interesting here is that the people motivated by power were better than the people motivated by achievement in actually accomplishing their jobs.

The Text [2]

“Leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.”

 In other words, don’t trust autobiographies of leaders – at least when it comes to power.

The Text [3]

“The data shows that performance doesn’t matter that much for what happens to most people in most organizations.”

 Or as Robin Hanson might say, promotions are not about performance.

The Text [4]

“The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves.”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t give feedback or be honest – it just means that you need to, overtime, enhance your boss’s self image.

The Text [5]

“You face a dilemma. Being in a powerful department provides advantages for your income and your career. But for that very reason, lots of talented people want to go to the most powerful units.”

Pfeffer is talking about relative sources of power within divisions of a company, but I often think about this in terms of which city to start your career in.

The Text [6]

“Here’s the rub: to appear competent, it is helpful to seem little tough, or even mean.”

In most cases, I’ve found that wielding power ethically has very few negative consequences, but I do think being mean makes the world a little less great, even if it helps accomplish important organizational objectives.

The Text [7]

“Power is addictive, in both a psychological and physical sense.”

When I was stepping down from NSNO, a mentor asked me how I was going to continue to fulfill my desire for ethically using power (which is a motivating drive for me). Perhaps this blog is a way to build a different kind of power (via a decentralized network rather than a hierarchal position within an organization).


Anyone trying to do good (or bad!) in the world clearly ignores power at their own peril. Using power ethically can bring immense meaning and happiness. But power can also be addictive. It can make you stupid. And it can make you less empathetic.

So be careful out there.

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