“Smart Power Plays” for Leaders – Really?

Eliminate rivals, bully others, self-promote, fake emotions, play politics – these are some of the surprising recommendations for effective leadership you can find these days in both academia and the mainstream culture.

A few months ago, it was a widely read Atlantic Monthly article, “Why It Pays To Be a Jerk.” Now, there’s Professor Jeff Pfeffer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who teaches MBA students that “smart power plays” are the key to becoming leaders. He writes: “The teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptions about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying or abusive way. But that world doesn’t exist.”

While I respect Professor Pfeffer as a social scientist and a provocateur, I find his advice to future leaders curious, harmful, and out-of-touch with what effective leaders must do to lead knowledge workers. In his latest books aimed at the mainstream reader, Pfeffer claims that honesty, trust and authenticity are overrated as leadership requirements. Dismissing them as “pablum” and “toxic fables,” he urges tomorrow’s leaders to:

Eliminate Rivals:

  • “If you move quickly, you can often catch your opponents off guard and secure victory before they even know what is happening.”

Be Rude, Bully Others:

  • “Screaming, ranting, profanity, and carrying on…[are] often extremely effective for the perpetrator.”
  • “Niceness comes across as weakness or even a lack of intelligence.”

Self-Promote:

  • “As long as you keep your boss or bosses happy, performance really does not matter that much.”
  • “Don’t worry about how your efforts to build your path to power are affecting your employer.”

Fake your Emotions:

  • “Display emotions you don’t feel.”
  • “Display anger instead of sadness or remorse.”

Play politics:

  • “One of the best ways to make those in power feel better about themselves is to flatter them.”
  • “Highlight those dimensions of job performance that favor you – and work against your competition.”

I reject such cynical counsel. Indeed, the world is already full of pseudo-leaders who have followed it, damaging others and the enterprises they lead by counting on Professor Pfeffer’s assurance that “Once you’re powerful, people will forget how you got there.” Having been a leader myself for more than four decades, I can assure you they won’t. Nor will history.

Having taught for the past 23 years at Stanford, I’ve been inspired by its students, by its faculty, and by its mission: “Change individuals, Change Organizations, Change the World.”  This confident and optimistic vision has attracted many who want to change the leadership world for the better.

Whenever imposters secure the top slot by following Machiavellian advice for grabbing power, they do change the world – but not for the better. Just ask Jeff Skilling, Bernie Madoff or Bernie Ebbers – they’re all currently doing hard time in federal prison. Instead, students should emulate leaders who take seriously far weightier matters than plotting their own smart power plays, or weighing whether to smile or to eat the last doughnut in the box.

 The truth is that best-of-breed leaders care first about the well-being of those they lead. They understand they have a fiduciary duty. They view themselves as temporary stewards. They worry about mission and the allocation of scarce resources. And they know that in modern enterprises they must be at the center without being the center. Such leaders will have changed the world one organization at a time – and for the better.

No one needs to go to Stanford to learn how to change the world for the worse.

Joel Peterson