I first noticed The 48 Laws of Power sitting on the desk of a person who works deep in the bowels of a large insurance company. In an idle moment, not having the faintest clue what the book was about, I picked it up and flipped it open to a random page where I began to read an interesting retelling of the story of Pancho Villa that paints the man as a brilliant tactician that defeated the United States military with a ragtag band.
Having a pretty strong familiarity with American history, I was simultaneously amused with the angle taken by this historical tale and baffled as to why this was found on a desk between a book on leadership and Getting Things Done, so I stepped back and took a broader look at the book – and I was rather appalled.
The 48 Laws of Power is a collection of “laws” based on historical and philosophical anecdotes. These laws are amoral, meaning that they themselves don’t take into account any sense of right or wrong. Instead, the laws focus on how one can increase their influence over any situation, regardless of the moral consequences of doing so. In other words, this book focuses on how to gain power in any situation, regardless of whether it’s morally right or wrong, and it uses specific anecdotes from history to illustrate these “rules of power.”
My initial reaction to the book was just to write it off – after all, I’ve found time and time again that following my moral compass has served me far better in life than following any set of amoral rules. Stepping on someone else’s throat to raise myself six inches higher holds no appeal to me at all – and the sight of someone else doing that raises disgust in me. I tend to believe that this is how the majority of the professional world works; people are fundamentally honest and realize that lifting others often lifts themselves.
Then I began to see the book pop up in several surprising places, from the bookshelves of various people I knew to a surprising feature-length article in The New Yorker detailing the book and its author, Robert Greene. At first, this annoyed me – why would anyone pay special attention to this nonsense? Were there really that many amoral people out there, operating cloak-and-dagger style?
I had to figure this whole thing out, so I picked up a copy of The 48 Laws of Power and gave it a read-through. I’ll leave my conclusions to the “Buy or Don’t Buy?” section below, but let’s first take a look at some of these 48 rules.
Wandering Through The 48 Laws of Power
Rather than going through all 48 laws and boring you to sleep, I selected ten of them worth commenting on. The other 38 rules are similar in nature; if you want to read them all, just pick up a paperback copy of the book and look at the back cover, as they’re all listed there.
2. Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies
Here, Greene advises that people should not trust their friends in any significant way, using the story of Michael III‘s assassination by his former friend Basil I as an example. In general, you should never mix friendship and work – good advice. Instead, he advises that you place enemies in positions of power around you, as they have a lot to prove and can also provide great insight – I immediately thought of Abraham Lincoln’s inclusion of his political enemies in the Cabinet during the Civil War, a tactic outlined in the fascinating Team of Rivals.
My thoughts? I agree that it’s generally a good idea to not mix friendship and work – I have avoided making deep friendships with my coworkers. As for enemies, I tend to feel that working out conflicts with other people and actually working with them on projects can be beneficial to everyone involved – you can often come up with some great solutions and really set a good example of teamwork if you make an effort to work with your enemy. I essentially agree with this rule.
4. Always say less than necessary
Greene uses a myth about Coriolanus speaking too much (and thus ruining his reputation) and then holds up Louis XIV as a paragon of the virtue of speaking in brief. Both, actually, are completely mythological – very little is actually known about Coriolanus and the quote he uses from Louis XIV – L’État, c’est moi – was actually conceived by his opponents to make him seem egotistical.
This rule is a little strong for my taste – I generally believe in saying just what’s necessary because saying more than that is usually a detriment. Every time I’ve underplayed my knowledge, it’s actually ended up being a detriment to me as I’ve later been accused of hiding information. I think a philosophy of giving the relevant information but keeping it brief is the best route to follow.
7. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit
This is a pretty blunt one. Greene backs it up by retelling the classic tale of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison – Tesla may have been the better scientist, but Edison knew how to find others, employ them in his labs, and then take broader credit for the inventions.
At first glance, this is a deeply underhanded method of gaining power – it seems to warrant cheating, paying others to complete your papers, and so forth. Think of it this way, though – how often has your manager presented work you’ve done to demonstrate the work of the group – in other words, to make your manager look good? It’s generally accepted that a person receives more respect if he acknowledges the hard work of individual team members – I’ve seen this from the perspective of the team member, the person doing the reporting, and the person being reported to.
11. Learn to keep people dependent on you
Many people feel that the way to safety is to be a sycophant to a powerful boss. This isn’t true; as soon as you make a mis-step, they can easily get rid of you and replace you with another. Instead, Greene urges you to ally yourself with a weak boss and then focus on making yourself indispensable – create a situation where without you, their power would collapse. At that point, who has the power?
Greene uses the story of Otto von Bismarck and his relationship with the various Kaisers of Germany to illustrate the point. Bismarck was able to work tightly with some of the late Kaisers and push them into unifying Germany, making himself the first Chancellor in the process. A strong Kaiser could have tossed Bismarck aside for these moves, but the weak ones were so reliant on Bismarck that they let him lead.
12. Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim
I believe the appropriate term for this is “sucking up,” though it takes the interesting twist of viewing the person you’re sucking up to as the victim. One could also view this as building a fake relationship with someone in order to exploit them. Either way, it’s a behavior that doesn’t win you much respect from others.
Greene uses several anecdotes in this chapter, most interestingly one actually involving a rather clever con man. Of course, that just illustrates the dishonesty of this approach – you’re basically being a confidence man when you cultivate relationships like this just to manipulate people.
14. Pose as a friend, work as a spy
This rule encourages the reader to use social situations to spy on the “enemy.” In other words, you should act friendly towards people you view as adversaries at social gatherings, hopefully disarming them, and then use this vague trust to probe them for information. I immediately thought of a person I know who will make small talk for a minute, then immediately start asking me questions about my computer consulting business.
To illustrate the point, Greene tells about the techniques Joseph Duveen, arguably the most successful art dealer of all time, and the techniques he used for finding clients. Basically, he used social situations to find out tons of details about prospective clients, then utilized these details to wow them.
16. Use absence to increase respect and honor
The discussion of this law involves the tale of Deioces, a highly respected judge who withdrew from public life; when the public realized how valuable he was as a judge to their society, they made him king.
Greene proposes that this same philosophy is often true. If you provide a valuable service for people, making yourself absent for a period will make them really appreciate the service that you provide. While this is true, it is extremely easy for this to backfire on you – people can discover that you’re not as valuable as you might hope, for instance. One way to do this effectively is to utilize your vacation time and go on a “no-contact” vacation.
20. Do not commit to anyone
The idea here is that by not strictly committing to anything, when you do produce it creates the impression of coming off as a grand favor. Greene uses Elizabeth I as one example here – she never married or bore children, but used hints of potential courtship to get exactly what she wanted.
While this can be a great tactic to use if you have value that others want – think of a skilled plumber in a city, for example – if you don’t, not committing and trying to play people off of each other will merely earn you enemies.
34. Be royal in your own fashion: Act like a king to be treated by one
This is one of the best pieces of advice in the entire book and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. There are few things you can do to improve yourself in the eyes of others than to appear mature and respectable and to value your personal appearance. If you act vulgar and crude, people will simply treat you with less respect.
Greene uses the example of Louis-Philippe to show the value of carrying yourself well, arguing that a big piece of his downfall was his attempts at appearing as a common man and not as a leader. An interesting take, though it was his increasingly ultraconservative governance that eventually brought him down.
41. Avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes
Generally, it is extremely difficult to follow a person who has done a tremendous job. People have come to expect excellence from the position, and as a replacement, you’re not only expected to uphold that excellence but also learn all of the trappings of the job very quickly. Greene basically says that one should not do this – the risks are too high. Instead, if you must fill that role, make it your own.
To illustrate, he uses the examples of Alexander the Great and Napoleon III. Alexander took what his father, Phillip of Macedonia, had built and used it as the foundation for much greater things. Napoleon III, on the other hand, stepped into his role as leader of France and took the nation in many unexpected directions, quickly stepping away from the shadow of his namesake.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
If you work in a large office environment, you’ve probably met people who do most of the things above. Consider what you think of these people. Do you like that person who seems to always skip out on meetings where they’re needed? What about the person that puts up a false front to everyone, acting generous and honest, but then behaves very coldly when push comes to shove? What about the guy who marches around like he’s God’s gift to the company, but rarely steps up to the plate when it’s really needed?
If you’re like me, you can’t stand these people and you’re much more likely to help out the straight shooter down the hall when he needs a hand than the person playing these games. The 48 Laws of Power is basically a litany of all of these various power games that people like to play. Playing them yourself is likely to have two effects: you’ll gain some power over some people and get a lot of resentment from the rest of them.
Obviously, a few of these rules do make sense for most – making your job your own, for example – but the nuggets of usefulness are surrounded by a deep mist of questionable behavior.
So why read this book? It does a brilliant job of explaining the logic and mindset of people who play such games to get power. If you want to understand why people play these games, this is a book well worth reading. It is interestingly written as well, with a lot of somewhat biased historical anecdotes (don’t take them as fact, as many are myths or are somewhat inaccurate) to support each of the points. The book itself is also laid out quite impressively, giving it a particular weightiness that’s also somehow inviting for browsing.
My belief is that real power comes from earning respect, and this is just a list of shortcuts that will easily fall apart under scrutiny. This book is useful for no other reason than it clues you in to how some people tend to think, particularly those that are overly power hungry. For that reason alone, if you work in a competitive office environment, this book is worth reading just to understand the logic behind some of these games. Of course, playing these games yourself is highly likely to get you labelled as the office scumbag, so tread lightly on this stuff – use it to understand the behavior of others, not to try to gain power yourself.