The 48 Laws of Power

Last year, based on a extremely flattering book recommendation, I read The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene.

Power has a lot of relevance to leadership. I see leadership as the process of influencing others. For example, if you consider the ‘5 steps to making an impact’ graph, there are plenty of examples we can all think of where power is used to skip those steps and make an impact without actually gaining creditability, trust, respect, or inclusion. But the reality is that the outcome isn’t as impactful because the folks following may not believe in where they are led. This is the dilemma of top-down leadership. And to tie in another book I recently read (Thinking in Systems), it’s why feedback loops are incredibly important for leaders whose impact comes from their role, not their progression up the ‘making an impact’ graph (or as power law 18 says: do not build fortresses to protect yourself–isolation is dangerous).

But there are also situations where power is used to help facilitate the steps in the impact graph. And that’s what I’d call a good use of power for a leader. And sometimes, as a leader, you must wield power to skip the steps because there isn’t time for the alternative of progressing up the graph. That’s not ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world. That’s why repairing relationships is one of those topics all leaders need.

Yes, The 48 Laws of Power talks about Machiavellian ways of getting and using power. Yes, this is very different from the ideas and techniques promoted in the UW-IT Leadership program (or any leadership program). But as Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: “Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.” At the very least, you owe it to yourself to be aware of the techniques that might be used against you, and to avoid the worst mistakes of using the power that comes with leadership. “Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.” (the rest of the Machiavelli quote above) At the best, you may learn techniques that you can use in a good way as a leader. And be able to share those techniques with your fellow leaders. ­čÖé

So with that introduction, let me focus more on the book itself.

Each chapter focuses on a single law. All the chapters follow a predictable pattern:

  • The law is presented.
  • Highly interesting historical examples that support the law are shared. These come in two flavors and both are always included, usually multiple examples of each:
    • ┬á┬áTransgressions: Examples of someone breaking the law and losing power (and often their life). Followed by a short interpretation section with analysis.
    • Observances: Examples of someone following the law and gaining power. Followed by a short interpretation section with analysis.
  • Keys to power. Distillation and key points about this law.
  • Image: Words in the form of an image (a word picture of sorts) to help you remember the law is presented.
  • Authority: A quote that states the law in a slightly different way.
  • Reversals: Exceptions to the law are noted.

Then throughout, the margins are used to sprinkle in additional material that reinforces the law. This material comes from fables, historical examples, scripture, and other sources.

Even if I hadn’t been interested in reading about power, the history, stories, and anecdotes included were fabulous. I found myself eager to read this entertaining material and flew through the book. I read about half of it over a period of a couple weeks, recognized I wasn’t absorbing it, set it down for a couple months, and returned to finish it later. I enjoyed the history more than I was learning the power laws themselves. Eventually I realized that I’ll have to re-read the book a 2nd time to really absorb the laws. You may be different, but I’d advise that if you commit to this book recognize that it isn’t just a simple once through read.

I’d especially recommend reading this book if you are a leader who doesn’t have authority that comes from the organization, as it’ll give you lots of techniques you can use. But regardless, if you are serious about being a leader, then this book should be on your reading list.