Power is all around us. We swim through it like fish. It touches every part of us, and it is so vast that it can be difficult to see. Power is nothing but the ability to get things done. And everyone has things to do. 1

Recently, I read through a number of pieces on power, following the syllabus from David Nussbaum's Power and Influence in Organizations course, in addition to a few other pieces.

Here are some largely unorganized heuristics that stuck out to me.

What is power?

All by itself, power is amoral. Charlie Songhurst asks people whether they'd rather have fame, power, or money. Of those, power is pretty good, but there are better things in life than all three.

At a first pass, power is just the capacity to get or prevent things from being done.

In order to produce (or prevent) change, one needs to control resources. Resources should be thought of broadly, as social, material, symbolic, informational, and structural.

Power is often correlated with status, but they aren't the same. Status can be thought of as one's perceived power and social value. One's power can go undetected. Many have false beliefs about who really holds power. One can provide social value without capturing it and converting it into power.

Speed Matters

Power changes happen quickly. While Elon Musk was on his way to Australia in 2001, the board moved to have him replaced by Peter Thiel in the span of a few hours.

Bill Agee is another nice corporate example of this dynamic:

The final showdown between Panny and Agee. . . may have involved Mary Cunningham. One story going around Detroit has it that a number of Bendix executives went to Panny complaining about the Cunningham-Agee relationship, and that Panny was planning to take the matter to the board. The next day . . . Agee fired him before he had a chance.2

In another case, Agee learns that Harry Cunningham is planning an adversarial meeting with the board without him in attendance on March 6. Agee calls his own special meeting on Feb 25th. The outcome? Harry Cunningham leaves the board.

Although some details of the case are unclear, Samuel Doe became the president of Liberia by attacking the sitting president William R Tolbert and then quickly moving to get rid of his existing supporters:

Together with sixteen other noncommissioned officers, Doe had scaled the fence at the Executive Mansion, hoping to confront the president and find out why they had not been paid. Seeing the opportunity before him, he ended the dominance of Tolbert’s True Whig Party, a political regime created by slaves repatriated from America in 1847. He immediately rounded up thirteen cabinet ministers, who were then publically executed on the beach in front of cheering crowds. Many more deaths would follow. Doe then headed the People’s Redemption Council that suspended the constitution and banned all political activity.3

Most coups follow the same pattern.

The first mover in a space will tend to have advantages. This is especially true for networks. It's easier to start the first social-impact-for-young-professionals group in a city than the second. And in order to be the to first move, you need to move quickly. In general, favor creating corporate networks over coups.

Moving fast, isn't always the right play, sometimes you'll need to delay. If you're able, slowing things down considerably can sap people's persistence, attention, and resources:

When owners of the land sued, Moses did everything he could to delay the case. Caro noted that “on the day he was scheduled to be examined, he didn’t show up in court. . . . his attorneys began a new series of delaying actions in an attempt to stall the proceedings until January.” Through the strategy of delay, Moses exhausted his opponents’ willingness to spend money; moreover, he completed the park while the case about its construction was being tried.4

Don't let the board meet without you

In general, letting people who have a say in what goes on meet without you is less than ideal, especially if the meeting is institutionally recognized.

This is a lesson from the Agee and Musk cases above. It's also noted in this article on fall of the Lehman brothers and Lew Glucksman:

With this meeting, the board effectively seized control of Lehman from Lew Glucksman, Glucksman having seized control himself a mere five months earlier. According to Breck, ''What Glucksman had done is allow the board meeting to take place without his being there. It was a classic management error. An error we never allow our corporate clients to make.''


In order to get ahead, you need to be inauthentic. This paper asks whether self-monitors get ahead and the answer is yes. Self-monitors are people who are "markedly sensitive and responsive to social and interpersonal cues to situational appropriateness." This can be described in favorable and less favorable ways. Colloquially, they are chameleons who can take on whatever beliefs and behaviors the situation demands on them in order to get ahead.

The following was said about Lyndon B Johnson: "he had a burning ambition to be somebody. He didn’t know what he wanted to be, but he wanted to be somebody."   5

See also this line on Barak Obama from David Garrow: "While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core."6 David Garrow has an axe to grind, but the description strikes me as apt of many politicians and people in power.

Political institutions will select for people who want power. And if you're a chameleon, you're more likely to get it. This is likely unfortunate. Political institutions are selecting for power hungry chameleon types, instead of the principled.

It's not obvious that you wan't principled politicians, principles can be dangerous and mistaken. You'd prefer a politician be an opportunist then someone who sticks to cruel or irrational principles. But on the margin, it seems like it would be a good thing to have more principled people in politics. That will require better systems for selection than we have now.

Read the boring details

Read! Robert Moses got the power to effective seize private citizens' land by sneaking in a clause into a boring bill that an young aide proposed.

The best example of this is the following from Managing With Power:

"BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That this body, once again, recognizes and applauds the outstanding feats accomplished in track and field by champion Harvey Glance; we commend him on his spectacular performance in the 45th SEC Track and Field Meet, in his honor we hereby repeal Act Number Nine Hundred Forty-Nine, adopted October tenth, Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Five, and congratulate him on winning the Commissioner’s Trophy, and direct that a copy of this resolution be sent to him that he may know of our pride, our praise and our highest esteem."

Act Number 949 created a committee on Finance and Taxation. Which someone didn't like, so they introduced this bill on the last day of the legislative session.

Not every power struggle is worth struggling over

Pete Peterson, former CEO of Lehman, avoided a drawn out power struggle with the previously mentioned Lew Glucksman over Lehman in the 80s. Lew Glucksman aimed for the CEO position and got it. Quote Peter Peterson. Lew Glucksman won the privilege to run Lehman into an unpopular acquisition, Pete Peterson went on to found Blackstone.

Some of the battles that aren't worth winning happen in games that aren't even worth playing.

Focus, Tradeoffs

Revisiting the great work debate, the powerful have a singular focus. At dances, Lyndon would dance with older women who knew or were married to congressman, instead of the presumably more attractive younger women that other aides were drawn to.

One is demanded to be on all the time:

Gary Loveman, CEO of the casino company Harrah’s Entertainment, understands that because many employees may see him only once in a year, he needs to be “on” when he is in front of them. Even in momentary interactions, Loveman must convey that employees work in a company led by caring, engaged people they can trust. Even if he is tired or feeling ill, in public appearances Loveman radiates energy and competitive intensity—and this competitive vitality has helped make Harrah’s successful.2

Another note on Barak Obama: on the day after Sasha was born, Barack went downtown for a meeting.

Stamina is key

In order to make a lot happen, you need a lot of stamina. Jeffrey Pfeffer remarked that: "I know of almost no powerful people who do not have boundless energy."

Recall Larry Ellison's comment on Bill Gates: he's mean and he's not tired."

Robin Hanson has a similar meditation on this theme here.

This reminded me of the line about Edward Gibbon:

"Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing."

Provide Value

One way you can accrue power is by providing value to people. This is a more optimistic story than the earlier points - as long as the people you're providing value to value the right things. This will create incentives to shut other people out of providing the same value. To some extent, transparency and clear rules can avoid that problem.

A more concrete way to think about this in the corporate context: executive and managers have OKRs (hopefully). If you can help them achieve those OKRs, that puts you in a good spot. Not only that, but most execs have a high-level view, where it's easy to miss important and neglected details on the ground. If you can provide those details, that's another way you can prove to be indispensable.

Think of it like trading in a market. You can have an edge in trading by: having insight no one else does, relating information everyone else has in a novel way, or trading in way no one else does. In an organizational context, that looks like: uncovering key information that serves the business, relating integration crucial parts of the organization together, or having talent and execution that no one else does.

Informal interactions matter

In order to know how to provide value, you need to be in a lot of information flows. Informal interactions and customs matter a lot for this.

They build help you get information that you wouldn't otherwise. This is especially easy for introverted engineering types to underrate.

But they matter in a more human way as well. People are more likely to trust you and see you as part of the tribe after informal interactions.

In the The Textile Corporation of America, a famous HBS case, one gets the sense that the talented, but relatively impotent, Harvard MBA would have been more successful in shaping his organization if he played golf with the executives.

On Information Value

If virtually all information and communication flows through you, you will have more power. One source of your power will be your control over the flow of information, and another is that people attribute power to individuals who are central.2

Information can be a critical resource. Especially for knowledge work:

His strategy? 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 management—such as who listened to various radio programs and why, who owned buildings where CBS wanted office space, demographic information on various media markets, essentially any data that might be useful. In many instances, these data were sitting around at CBS waiting to be compiled or came through surveys that anyone could have done.2

Taking on small tasks is useful, especially when they are one's that others underrate:

Taking on small tasks can provide you with power because people are often lazy or uninterested in seemingly small, unimportant activities. Therefore, if you take the initiative to do a relatively minor task and do it extremely well, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to challenge you for the opportunity. Meanwhile, these apparently minor tasks can become important sources of power.2

Power hacks

One model for building power is to take on the personality traits of the powerful like:

  • Be mean: ("nice people are perceived as warm, but niceness frequently comes across as weakness or even a lack of intelligence.")
  • Be angry: "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."2
  • Interrupt people: "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."2
  • Be confident: "He asserted that he had controlled what had occurred, frequently using phrases such as “I told” and “I caused.” This phrasing demonstrated that he was not running away from what he had done. Observers watching people who don’t deny or run away from their actions naturally presume that the perpetrators don’t feel guilty or ashamed, so maybe no one should be too upset."2

This is like the pickup artist who aims to become more attractive by acting like confident, attractive people. This likely goes some way, but confidence likely only works long term if you can back it up. I expect the same goes for lists that promote the top 10 ways to become powerful.

Always be understood

"ONE CAN LACK any of the qualities of an organizer—with one exception—and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there."7

The key trait for an organizer is that every word they say is understood. As far as heuristics goes, it's pretty good. The only modification I'd make is that you want every word to be understood by the target audience.

Don't forget to ask for help

People find asking for help uncomfortable. You can get an edge by doing uncomfortable things, so it's often worth doing.

If someone helps you, offer to help them if you can.

A corollary of this is that people would like your help, but aren't asking for it.

From Engineers To Managers

My anecdotal sense is that in silicon valley tech companies the most powerful roles in organizations are product management roles. For some companies, it's probably engineering, but given the product focus, engineers lose out eventually. This is a broad generalization of course. Some evidence for this is that it's what many undergrads are now aiming for.

The reason for this is the following:

"The fundamental idea is deceptively simple: by connecting units that are tightly linked internally but socially isolated from each other, the person doing the connecting can profit by being the intermediary who facilitates interactions between the two groups."2

Leading slogans, leading causes

A leading slogan is a slogan that one can't disagree with. From Rules for Radicals:

The eleventh rule of the ethics of means and ends is that goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” Whitman put it: “The goal once named cannot be countermanded.”7

Yes, there are many rules in this book.

Consider the following examples of this: pro life, pro choice, family values, black lives matter.

Your path to power is going to be easier if you are aligned with a compelling, socially valuable objective. That doesn’t mean you are cynically using some social cause for your own gain—just that to the extent you can associate your efforts with a socially desirable, compelling value, you increase your likelihood of success. Opposing Laura Esserman’s efforts at UCSF was tantamount to turning one’s back on breast cancer and its victims and their families.2

There's a cynical and an optimistic take to this, in the long run I think the optimistic take on this will win out.

  1. Ben Landau Taylor, What is Power?
  2. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have It And Others Don't
  3. Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The Dictator's Handbook
  4. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing With Power
  5. Robert Caro, The Path To Power
  6. David Garrow, Rising Star
  7. Saul Alinksky, Rules for Radicals