Difficult for me to read but, nevertheless, critical to understand... Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power advocates a way of being in the world that I do not embrace. Some of his recommendations encourage withholding information, being mystical and unavailable, exercising manipulation and coercion, and many other strategies that he poses as essential in the game of acquiring and holding power. While these are not strategies that are consonant with what I believe is effective leadership in the 21st century, to know that there are those who inadvertently or intentionally use these methods, and to have a way to respond to them, is necessary for survival.
The 48 laws are formulated through citations of historical incidents and figures across many cultures. This is part of Greene’s proposition – that the 48 laws are universal across time and place. The descriptions are thick and the repetition of certain historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth I, Bismarck and others is an important reminder of how wide-spread the misuse and abuse of power has been.
I also came to realize that I use certain forms of power that I had not recognized. One of these is transparency. I tend to play my cards with an open hand (meaning that others can see exactly what I have in my possession) which I’ve always recognized as involving risk, primarily the risk that others will use my transparency against me and strategize to undermine my efforts. The useful power part of this is that transparency tends to engender trust among both allies and opponents. In fact, even when an opponent uses information against us that we’ve freely shared, the moral authority we gain by demonstrating trustworthiness can easily backfire on the opponent. There are numerous other positive examples of power that I had not recognized, some of which involve potentially manipulative elements. An example is letting issues “ripen” until others are drawn into taking initiative. The metaphor of forcing others to first play their cards captures what happens. I’ve often wanted to jump into a challenging issue, to problem-solve, and to bring others together to respond to a question. However, sometimes the timing is off – it’s too early and the issue has not ripened sufficiently for others to be willing to take their portion of the responsibility or initiative to resolve it. This particular issue is very difficult for “fix-it” leaders to tolerate because waiting for the ripening and for the first move by others can be excruciating.
The 48 laws of power are formulated within the philosophy of Nicolai Machiavelli, the famous Florentian who authored “The Prince” as a guide to courtier conduct. The advice offered by Machiavelli has stood the test of time and is one of the most noted and debated perspectives in leadership studies. Reading Greene’s interpretation and voluminous examples was disheartening in many ways. On the other hand, it surfaced dynamics that I know are part of our daily work in education, government, business, arts, and other arenas. My most important “take-away” is learning to choose the power strategy that has the greatest potential to be effective while maintaining my integrity, all the time recognizing the choices that others are making in support of, or in contrast to, the method I’ve chosen. A theme to which I’ve returned numerous times on my blog – it’s not about us but about dynamics and processes beyond us.