It’s been almost twenty years since Robert Greene’s bestselling book “The 48 Laws of Power” was released to a fanfare of praise and scepticism in equal measure. The book examined power, or rather, how to get it, and despite critical success, many felt that some of Greene’s “laws” were either too ruthless, or not realistically transferable to the business world.
Whenever we discuss becoming powerful in the world of enterprise, we must first understand what exactly we are talking about. On one side, the definition of power is exactly as you would imagine – the literal power to make decisions and carry out one’s own personal objectives. That usually comes from a direct position of power (for example, that which a CEO or senior manager may have) whereby should that individual want something done his or her way, giving the order is enough.
Another approach to power, however, has to do with using “power tactics” to gain the upper hand in common business situations – be it closing a deal, winning a new client, getting a raise, and so on. It is essentially employing strategies – such as those outlined in Greene’s book – to achieve your goals, and it is often done in a rather deceptive manner.
By looking at some of the examples from the book, then, we get an idea of just how these “tactics” work and how you can apply them – or at least how Greene suggests they can be applied – to help you get the upper hand in certain business situations. In this article I wanted to review four of them that certainly give us food for thought.
Law #9: Win through your actions – never through argument
Law summary: “Any momentary triumph you think you have gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.”
The first of Greene’s laws on our list makes good sense. We’ve all heard the old adage “actions speak louder than words”, and in business that has another side to it – which is about getting something done in a way that does not leave behind a great deal of resentment. Inevitably, when you are “victorious” through argument you are likely offending someone, because you have often won that argument either through persistence or even “bullying.”
I don’t think Greene is suggesting you simply drop all dialogue and do whatever it is you want, but rather he is implying that instead of lobbying for something – which will inevitably involve discussions and at times heated ones – simply get started on what it is you want to do and show results. In other words, it is much better to prove your point by taking action – which is less open to interpretation, and removes the need for you to convince your adversary of your point, because you have, instead, demonstrated it.
Law #10: Infection: Avoid the unhappy and unlucky
Law summary: “You can die from someone else’s misery – emotional states are as infectious as diseases. You may feel you are helping the drowning man but you are only precipitating your own disaster. The unfortunate sometimes draw misfortune on themselves; they will also draw it on you. Associate with the happy and fortunate instead.”
While this one could be interpreted as one of Greene’s more “ruthless” laws, there is certainly something that can be drawn from this sentiment. Two steadfast facts of life: misery loves company, and negativity breeds negativity. It is vital then that entrepreneurs and business people in general eliminate negative influences from their lives. To paraphrase the famous quote: “Surround yourself with greatness and you too shall be great,”
Don’t waste your time on those who say it can’t be done. Don’t even bother getting drawn into an argument with them. And if you can’t avoid them, use their negativity as impetous. That is, you say it can’t be done? Well I know it can, so watch me. This bit of advice I can’t stress enough for you startups. The fact that you have taken the brave step already sets you apart. You don’t need others trying to bring you down because of their own insecurities.
Law #20: Do not commit to anyone
Law summary: “It is the fool who always rushes to take sides. Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself. By maintaining your independence, you become the master of others— playing people against one another, making them pursue you.”
“Playing people against one another” Wow! That really does sound ruthless. Ok, maybe – or maybe not – that is going too far, but there is a very clear takeaway from Greene’s 20th law here, and that is to move cautiously when it comes to commitments. This of course can take many forms. For example, in negotiations it is often too easy to agree to a price or terms in the heat of the moment, but have the discipline to avoid doing so. Take your time. The practiced politician or businessperson knows all too well that the one sure-fire way to give the other side the upper hand in a negotiation is to state your stance too quickly.
Another important takeaway from this one could be how we handle our colleagues – in particular those under us. Be very careful what you promise. Be it in salary discussions, job duties, goals and targets, etc. When it comes to giving something to someone or letting them off the hook for something that they should be accountable for, once you say it you can never take it back without causing a fair bit of damage. Make your call too quickly or in even a slight emotional state, and it can come back to haunt you.
Also worth mentioning here is your role as arbitrator. Every once in a while you may find yourself in the middle of a conflict, whereby two (or more) sides are looking at you for your opinion – to see whose side you are on. Tread carefully. While it is important to be sympathetic and understanding to all sides, it is best not to agree or disagree with either side too wholeheartedly. Be the diplomat. It will serve you well in all aspects of your career.
Law #35: Master the art of timing
Law summary: “Never seem to be in a hurry – hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time. Always seem patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually. Become a detective of the right moment; sniff out the spirit of the times, the trends that will carry you to power. Learn to stand back when the time is not yet ripe, and to strike fiercely when it has reached fruition.”
One of my favorites. How difficult, after all, is it for us to display patience when it is truly needed. Humans are not programmed that way, yet discipline in this respect can reap rewards, whereas erring here can lead to extremely costly outcomes. On the flipside, wait too long – because you are trepid or fearful – and you may miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
As with all the laws this can apply to many situations. Everything from when to take the leap with your startup, when to make the first hire, when to invest in R&D, when to take a bigger office, when to say yes to a new client project even though you might not be 100% ready for it, etc. As an employee this can apply to approaching your boss for a raise, asking for time off, pushing for change, and so on.
Of course there will always be an element of fortune when it comes to making the right decision at the right time, but you can help yourself by understanding your markets, your business, the financial position of the company you are working for, the frame of mind your boss may be in, and so on, in order to give yourself that edge wherever possible.
It’s all very philosophical
Is Greene’s work to be taken seriously? That’s up to the reader to decide. Without a doubt there are takeaways, but the best of them are simply those very common sense life lessons, which the above four laws are good examples of, and which can apply to personal life just as well as the professional side of things.
The concept of power is a very philosophical one. Defining it, understanding it, and identifying it is never so black and white. And while business advice like Greene’s laws will in certain situations help you command more respect and appear to yield more power, they alone will not make or break your success in business.
Entrepreneurship is about far more than appearing to have the upper hand, after all. Without the hard-work, skill and motivation required to build a product or service that provides value to a sizeable client base, no “laws of power” will help you succeed. And while we indeed live in a world that is at times quite ruthless, honesty and transparency are very refreshing traits that may end up opening a lot more doors for you.