Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t


As soon as you recognize the just-world effect and its influence on your perceptions and try to combat the tendency to see the world as inherently fair, you will be able to learn more in every situation and be more vigilant and proactive to ensure your own success.

And ironically, one of the best ways for people to preserve their self-esteem is to either preemptively surrender or do other things that put obstacles in their own way.

Self-handicapping and preemptively giving up or not trying are more pervasive than you might think.


In advertising, one of the most prominent measures of effectiveness is ad recall—not taste, logic, or artistry—simply, do you remember the ad and the product? The same holds true for you and your path to power.

the effect refers to the fact that people, other things being equal, prefer and choose what is familiar to them—what they have seen or experienced before. Research shows that repeated exposure increases positive affect and reduces negative feelings,12 that people prefer the familiar because this preference reduces uncertainty,13 and that the effect of exposure on liking and decision making is a robust phenomenon that occurs in different cultures

It is much more effective for you to ask those in power, on a regular basis, what aspects of the job they think are the most crucial and how they see what you ought to be doing. Asking for help and advice also creates a relationship with those in power that can be quite useful, and asking for assistance, in a way that still conveys your competence and command of the situation, is an effective way of flattering those with power over you.

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.

The lesson: worry about the relationship you have with your boss at least as much as you worry about your job performance. If your boss makes a mistake, see if someone else other than you will point it out. And if you do highlight some error or problem, do so in a way that does not in any way implicate the individual’s own self-concept or competence—for instance, by blaming the error on others or on the situation. The last thing you want to do is be known as someone who makes your boss insecure or have a difficult relationship with those in power. One of the best ways to make those in power feel better about themselves is to flatter them.

“What I am suggesting is that the President fasten down support for his cause by resorting to an unchanging human emotion—the need to feel wanted and admired.”20


Brown developed more patience and empathy with others and honed his ability to forge interpersonal relationships.3

If, as you progress through your career, you need to develop new ways of thinking and acting, and such development requires effort, you must be sufficiently motivated to expend the effort. But to admit you need to develop new behaviors and skills seems to require admitting you are not as perfect as you would like to believe.

he focuses on “feedforward,” which emphasizes what people need to do to get ready for the subsequent positions and career challenges they will confront.

This is very clever: focusing on what you need to change to accomplish future personal goals can be much more uplifting than going back and reviewing past setbacks or considering areas of weakness.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance.”

The two fundamental dimensions that distinguish people who rise to great heights and accomplish amazing things are will, the drive to take on big challenges, and skill, the capabilities required to turn ambition into accomplishment.

The three personal qualities embodied in will are ambition, energy, and focus. The four skills useful in acquiring power are self-knowledge and a reflective mind-set, confidence and the ability to project self-assurance, the ability to read others and empathize with their point of view, and a capacity to tolerate conflict.

“The bee is an oddity of nature. It shouldn’t be able to fly, but it does. Every time I see that bee out of the corner of my eye, I am reminded to keep pushing for the impossible.”11

As she once said to me, “You don’t change the world by first taking a nap.”

Obviously, having the energy that permits you to put in long hours of hard work helps you to master subject matter more quickly.

Unlike many of his peers, Cozadd stuck with one company, ALZA, for the first 10 years after business school and has remained in the same industry throughout his career. He argued that this focus has provided him with more detailed knowledge of the industry, its technology and management issues, and also a denser network of contacts within the industry than if he had a more diffuse background.

Melinda has worked for the same credit card company since 2002. She noted that one advantage of staying in one place is that you get to know more people in a single organization, and this deeper knowledge permits you to better exercise power because of the stronger personal relationships you form and your more detailed knowledge of the people you are seeking to influence. Although there is a lot of talk recently about increased career mobility, it remains the case that it is often easier to acquire positions of influence as an insider.

Instead, he attributed his success to extensive reading—he read at least one nonfiction book a week—and to his practice of structured self-reflection.

When I asked him what leadership habits he thought made him effective, his response was immediate: making notes about decisions, meetings, and other interactions and reflecting on what he had done well or poorly so that he could improve his skills.

Structured reflection takes time. It also requires the discipline to concentrate, make notes, and think about what you are doing. But it is very useful in building a path to power.

One of the sources of Lyndon Johnson’s success as Senate majority leader was his assiduous attention to the details of his 99 colleagues, knowing which ones wanted a private office, who were the drunks, who were the womanizers, who wanted to go on a particular trip—all the mundane details that permitted him to accurately predict how people would vote and figure out what to give each senator to gain his or her support.

also conveyed an important lesson: far from diverting you from accomplishing your objectives, putting yourself in the other’s place is one of the best ways to advance your own agenda.

rude and coarse behavior had a purpose: “It was…a power play. ‘What he was telling us—and we did not realize it at first—was that what interested us did not have to interest him,’ one of them [a Nissan manager] said years later, ‘but what interested him had to interest us.’”24


The most common mistake is to locate in the department dealing with the organization’s current core activity, skill, or product—the unit that is the most powerful at the moment. This turns out to not always be a good idea because the organization’s most central work is where you are going to encounter the most talented competition and also the most well-established career paths and processes.


launching or re-launching your career requires that you develop both the ability and the willingness to ask for things and that you learn to stand out. People often don’t ask for what they want and are afraid of standing out too much because they worry that others may resent or dislike their behavior, seeing them as self-promoting. You need to get over the idea that you need to be liked by everybody and that likability is important in creating a path to power, and you need to be willing to put yourself forward. If you don’t, who will?

Both Reginald Lewis and Keith Ferrazzi understood that the worst that could happen from asking for something would be getting turned down. And if they were turned down, so what? They would not be any worse off than if they had not asked in the first place. If they didn’t ask or if they were refused, they would not receive what they sought, but at least with asking, there was some hope. Some people do believe that worse things could occur: that their bold behavior could offend those exposed to it and they could develop a “bad reputation.”

One reason why asking works is that we are flattered to be asked for advice or help—few things are more self-affirming and ego-enhancing than to have others, particularly talented others, seek our aid.

Gupta’s strategy for getting these people’s help was simple: determine who he wanted to be involved in the project and then ask them in a way that enhanced their feelings of self-esteem. Of course, once some prominent people agreed, those who were approached later were flattered to be asked to join such a distinguished group.

Gupta then paid them the ultimate compliment, noting that no one would take a book by someone like him seriously and he might miss important insights, but with their help, it would be a better and more widely read book.

This strategy works because research shows that people are more likely to accede to requests from others with whom they share even the most casual of connections.

Asking for help is inherently flattering, and can be made even more so if we do it correctly, emphasizing the importance and accomplishments of those we ask and also reminding them of what we share in common.

You need to do some things to stand out.

you need to build your personal brand and promote yourself, and not be too shy in the process.

“Most of us have modesty impulses—you don’t want to brag—and you have to learn to defy these basic human impulses and say, ‘I’m the greatest, and here is why you need me for this job,’ and do it without any hesitation or any doubt.”8 Many people believe that they can stand out and be bold once they become successful and earn the right to do things differently. But once you are successful and powerful, you don’t need to stand out or worry about the competition. It’s early in your career when you are seeking initial positions that differentiating yourself from the competition is most important.

When I asked him about his unusual approach, he described his marketing strategy as almost seducing people to come to you and your company to see what you are about.

In advertising, the concept of standing out to become memorable is called “brand recall,” which is an important measure of advertising effectiveness. What works for products can work for you too—you need to be interesting and memorable and able to stand out in ways that cause others to want to know you and get close to you.

The Prince, although it is desirable to be both loved and feared, if you have to pick only one, pick fear if you want to get and keep power.

Machiavelli’s advice anticipated research in social psychology about how we perceive others. That research found that the two virtually universal dimensions used to assess people are warmth and competence.13 Here’s the rub: to appear competent, it is helpful to seem a little tough, or even mean.

paper, “Brilliant but Cruel,” says it all. Other research has confirmed her findings: nice people are perceived as warm, but niceness frequently comes across as weakness or even a lack of intelligence.15

What this research implies is that people’s support for you will depend as much on whether or not you seem to be “winning” as on your charm or ability.

This instrumental view of personal relationships is not uncommon and indeed may be necessary for organizational survival.


Brown understood an important principle: having resources is an important source of power only if you use those resources strategically to help others whose support you need, in the process gaining their favor.

The second straightforward implication is that your power comes in large measure from the position you hold and the resources and other things you control as a consequence of holding that position.

They understood that building a power base is a process of accumulating leverage and resource control little by little over time. It’s important to be able to see or even create opportunities that others may miss—and even more important to have the patience and persistence to follow through on those opportunities.

A resource is anything people want or need—money, a job, information, social support and friendship, help in doing their job. There are always opportunities to provide these things to others whose support you want. Helping people out in almost any fashion engages the norm of reciprocity—the powerful, almost universal behavioral principle that favors must be repaid.

So here’s some simple and practical advice: most people like to talk about themselves—give them the opportunity to do so. Being a good listener and asking questions about others is a simple but effective way to use a resource everyone has—time and attention—to build power. And here’s some more advice: if you don’t have much power, you probably have time. Use that time to befriend others and go to events that are important to them.

Making himself indispensable by working as hard as he could to find as much information as possible about any and every topic of possible interest to senior CBS

Taking on small tasks can provide you with power because people are often lazy or uninterested in seemingly small, unimportant activities.

This initiative got Michael at the hub of all the recruiting communications, caused him to be much more in touch with senior partners, including the head of the firm, and built his reputation as someone who was willing to help out even when he didn’t have to (because he was still a student). All of the analysts who were hired knew him as the point person for analyst recruiting, and associated him with their employment success. Thus, even before joining the firm full-time, Michael had burnished his reputation and recruited allies.

The question was how to leverage his current role to acquire the resources that would be useful to building his power base.


You can’t select what you can’t remember, and that includes professional advisers, candidates for leadership positions, or job applicants. The effect of mere exposure on preference and choice is important and well demonstrated.

People are going to eat and exercise anyway—why not use that time to expand your network of contacts? When Ferrazzi turned 40, he didn’t have one birthday party; he had seven, in seven different cities around the United States, hosted by seven different friends. A birthday celebration became a wonderful opportunity to renew existing social ties and build new ones.

Providing any information lets the provider feel good about herself and is consistent with social norms of benevolence.

Consequently, an optimal networking strategy is to know a lot of different people from different circles, have multiple organizational affiliations in a variety of different industries and sectors that are geographically dispersed, but not necessarily to know the people well or to develop close ties with them.

It’s also the case that both organizations and people are known by the company they keep—so it behooves you to associate with high-status people.

One way to acquire status is to start an organization that is so compelling in its mission that high-status people join the project and you build both status and a network of important relationships.

People like to bask in reflected glory and associate with high-status others.

Power and influence come not just from the extensiveness of your network and the status of its members, but also from your structural position within that network. Centrality matters.

One way of building centrality is through physical location.

This natural tendency to associate with those close to us creates an opportunity for profiting by building brokerage relations—or, to use the terminology of University of Chicago business school professor Ronald Burt, by bridging the structural holes that exist between noninteracting groups.13

large network of weak ties is good for innovation and locating information, while a small network of strong ties is better suited to exploiting existing knowledge and transferring tacit skills.


expressing anger is usually much more effective than expressing sadness, guilt, or remorse in being seen as powerful. We choose how we will act and talk, and those decisions are consequential for acquiring and holding on to power.

Differences in the ability to convey power through how we talk, appear, and act matter in our everyday interactions, from seeking a job to attempting to win a vital contract to presenting a company’s growth prospects before investment analysts.

Authority is 20 percent given, 80 percent taken.6

First, after a while, what started out being an act becomes less so. Over time, you will become more like you are acting—self-assured, confident, and more strongly convinced of the truth of what you are saying. Attitudes follow behavior, as much research attests. Second, the emotions you express, such as confidence or happiness, influence those around you—emotions are contagious.9

Third, emotions and behaviors become self-reinforcing: if you smile and then others smile, you are more likely to feel happy and smile.

You are on stage more than you think, and not just as a senior leader.

To look engaged in meetings and other interactions, to signal that you care about those around you, put away the BlackBerry, the laptop, the cell phone, and all the other technological gadgets that compete for your time and attention. When you read an e-mail while you are talking to someone or in a meeting, the message you send is clear: I have other things to do that are way more important than paying attention to you.

Research shows that people who express anger are seen “as dominant, strong, competent, and smart,” although they are also, of course, seen as less nice and warm.12

If you express anger, not only do you receive more status and power and appear more competent but others are reluctant to cross you. After all, who wants to be the brunt of anger?

Tiedens maintains that forceful displays of anger that put the other person on the defensive are effective for both women and men.

Self-deprecating comments and humor work only if you have already established your competence. As the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said, “Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great.”19

When people are nervous or uncomfortable, they often shrink in on themselves, caving in their chest, folding their arms around them, going into what are essentially defensive postures. Bad idea if you want to project power.

Moving forward and toward someone is a gesture that connotes power, as does standing closer to others, while turning your back or retreating signals the opposite.

Gestures should be short and forceful, not long and circular. Looking people directly in the eye connotes not only power but also honesty and directness, while looking down is a signal of diffidence. Looking away causes others to think you are dissembling.

In taking on a new, powerful role, you will want to project confidence and the sense that you know what you are doing so that those around you will be inspired to follow your lead. But at the same time, you may want to convey humility and affiliation with those around you so that they will not see you as arrogant but will be motivated to offer their assistance.

Settings can convey power and status. A partner at a prominent San Francisco law firm told me, when I inquired about why the firm had spent so much on its lavish location and even more expensive interior furnishings, that people weren’t going to pay high hourly rates for someone who worked at a cheap metal desk. The Oval Office of the president of the United States is particularly powerful in this regard, and many presidents have used its iconic status to influence others whose support they needed by bringing them into the historic setting, subtly reminding them of the pomp and importance of the presidency.

One reason people don’t come across as forcefully or effectively as they might is that they begin to speak while they are flustered or unsure of the situation.

The language people use and how they construct presentations and arguments help determine their power.

But power gets created in private interactions and small meetings, not just on a huge stage.

One source of power in every interaction is interruption. Those with power interrupt, those with less power get interrupted. In conversation, interrupting others, although not polite, can indicate power and be an effective power move, something noted by scholars in a field called conversation analysis.

The first is the ability to win in direct contests: Whose point of view prevails? The second is more subtle: Who sets the agenda, and in the process determines whether a specific issue will even be discussed or debated at all? And the third form of power is more subtle still: Who determines the rules for interpersonal interactions through which agendas and outcomes are determined?23

someone in a dominant position can leverage that influence is to question and challenge the basic assumptions that underlie another person’s account. This is also a strategy to obtain power in an interaction.

“Words are the only things that last forever.”26

Use us-versus-them references. “It is widely known that the need to resist an external threat, whether real or imagined, has always been an extremely effective rallying cry when it comes to strengthening group solidarity.”27

Pause for emphasis and invite approval or even applause through a slight delay.

Use a list of three items, or enumerations in general. “One of the main attractions of three-part lists is that they have an air of unity and completeness about them.”29

Use contrastive pairs, comparing one thing to another and using passages that are similar in length and grammatical structure. The contrast is strategically chosen to make a point.

Humor is disarming and also helps create a bond between you and your audience through a shared joke.

sentence, “Our strategy is succeeding.”


Accomplishment matters, but so, too, does your reputation.

The fundamental principles for building the sort of reputation that will get you a high-power position are straightforward: make a good impression early, carefully delineate the elements of the image you want to create, use the media to help build your visibility and burnish your image, have others sing your praises so you can surmount the self-promotion dilemma, and strategically put out enough negative but

How people interpret what they see depends on their expectations that precede their observations.

Impressions and reputations endure, so building a favorable impression and reputation early is an important step in creating power.

There is a solution to this dilemma: get others, even those you employ such as agents, public relations people, executive recruiters, and colleagues, to tout your abilities.


Because people come from different backgrounds, face different rewards, and see different information, they are going to see the world differently. Consequently, disagreements are inevitable in organizations.

psychological reactance holds that people rebel against constraints or efforts to control their behavior—force is met with countervailing force.4 Seeking to dominate the conversation and the decision making and totally control the situation may work on some of your adversaries, but probably not too many. Most will seek to push back, very hard—they will react to your attempts to overpower them by doing things to maintain their power and autonomy. Therefore, one way to deal with opponents is to treat them well and leave them a graceful way to retreat.

Conflict arouses strong emotions, including anger, and these strong feelings interfere with our ability to think strategically about what we are really trying to do. You need to continually ask yourself, “What would victory look like? If you had won the battle, what would you want that win to encompass?” People lose sight of what their highest priorities are and get diverted fighting other battles that then cause unnecessary problems.

Not creating enemies or turmoil when it isn’t necessary requires something I have discussed before—focus. You need to have a clear understanding of where you are going and the critical steps on the way. When you confront opposition on this path, you need to react. But you just waste your time and possibly acquire gratuitous problems if you get involved with any issue or individual that has some connection, regardless of how irrelevant, to you and your agenda.

to make the relationship successful. Gary Loveman’s advice: after you reach a certain level, there comes a point in your career where you simply have to make critical relationships work. Your feelings, or for that matter, others’ feeling about you, don’t matter. To be successful, you have to get over resentments, jealousies, anger, or anything else that might get in the way of building a relationship where you can get the resources necessary for you to get the job done.

Persistence works because it wears down the opposition. Much like water eroding a rock, over time keeping at something creates results. In addition, staying in the game maintains the possibility that the situation will shift to your advantage. Opponents retire or leave or make mistakes.

he can mount a counterattack. The lesson: Don’t wait if you see a power struggle coming. While you are waiting, others are organizing support and orchestrating votes to win.

This reaction may be natural, but it is not helpful. Jon, Rudy Crew, and Jeff Sonnenfeld all had a story to tell—their story, about what happened to them and what it reflected, not just about them but about those taking the actions against them. Telling that story requires getting over any embarrassment and the associated tendency to retreat from view.

Your experience and contacts are all context-specific—you have human and social capital in a particular job domain. Moving to something else, whatever else the virtues of that new career path, will rob you of the resources and competence you have built doing what you do.

You want to convey that everything is fine and under your control, even under dire circumstances.


When you are powerful and successful, you are overconfident and less observant—and one specific manifestation of such tendencies is to trust what others tell you and rely on their assurances. As you become less vigilant and paranoid about others’ intentions, they have the opportunity to take you out of your position of power.

Lee and his political party have maintained power for decades in Singapore by never forgetting his own behavior and, therefore, never becoming complacent about their potential enemies and opposition and excessively trusting the good words of others.

It’s easier to lose your patience when you are in power—power leads to disinhibition, to not watching what you say and do, to being more concerned about yourself than about the feelings of others. But losing patience causes people to lose control and offend others, and that can cost them their jobs.


Because we see what we want to see, we may not accurately assess the political risks of a job—and suffer the consequences.

If he was not going to put up a fight, no one was going to pick up the cudgel on his behalf. People who are complicit in their own beheading don’t garner much sympathy or support.

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