Is living a life filled with distrust and deception the price of achieving professional success?  As we head into another year, it is a query worth pursuing.

Steve Katz, adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Business Institutions Program, points out a bestseller published in 1998 that purportedly draws from centuries of powerful leaders (on the order of Machiavelli, Talleyrand, Bismarck, Catherine the Great, Mao, Kissinger, Haile Selassie, etc.) for the best strategies for achieving business success. 

The problem with The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene (designed by Joost Elffers) is that virtually every one of these "laws" are counter to most current notions of business ethics and best leadership practices, and in some cases contravene a number of other generally accepted precepts as well.  Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of people out there who nonetheless following these "laws."

Mastering one’s emotions and perfecting the arts of deception and indirection are, the author asserts, the essential keys to success. Here are some examples:

  •   Law 3:    Conceal your Intentions
  •   Law 7:    Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit
  •   Law 11:  Keep people dependent on you
  •   Law 21:  Play a sucker to catch a sucker– seem dumber than your mark
  •   Law 27:  Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following
  •   Law 33:  Use each person’s weakness as a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage
  •   Law 44:  Disarm and infuriate your enemies by mirroring their values and their actions

While mastering one’s emotions is a worthy and productive goal that few fully attain, recent research shows that using that skill to suppress emotion at the workplace will not produce much success.  Lack of effective use and conveyance of emotion, particularly by the leader, is most likely to produce a working group that is not cohesive and not satisfied. 

Perfecting deception and indirection would hardly seem to be what would distinguish anyone from the crowd these days.  And in a post-Sarbanes Oxley world, wielding deception and indirection as tools of management could possibly lead to the wrong side of the bars .

What is not particularly surprising is that the books that identifies as most often bought along with 48 Laws of Power are Get Anyone to Do Anything; Never Feel Powerless Again by David J. Lieberman and The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed by "Mystery" and "Lovedrop."  (Was that a collective rush to Amazon?)

The point is that these kinds of  "power" plays are most likely the province of people who feel they lack influence, allure, value.  The sorry result of resorting to these tactics is that, whatever success is achieved in the short run (and I’m not assuming there usually is much), in the long run not only is there no success, but the journey to that unsucessful end will have been quite an unpleasant one for both the "power player" and his/her team.   

A better stance would be to do the opposite of what each of these rules suggest: 

  • Make your intentions clear
  • Give credit to others even when you have done some of the work
  • Provide the support that can set your team free
  • Be a source of information and inspiration to those working with you
  • Give others the gift that you believe in them
  • Show how each person’s strengths can help them and their team work better and happier
  • Take a stand for your values and make sure your actions follow suit

So, let us take the opposite of another of these "power laws", Law 20 (which advises not to commit to anyone or anything), and commit to a new year of achieving the kind of power that results from using both emotions and intellect to effectively and honestly build trust and respect at work.

Happy new year!