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Don’t take the wrong paths to power

By Joel Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29 2013 9:35 a.m. MDT

In this Jan. 15, 2008 file photo Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the Macbook Air during the keynote address at Apple MacWorld Conference in San Francisco.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

This article originally appeared on Linkedin Influencer. It has been reprinted here with permission.

Forget the common good — it’s your own good that matters. Seek power, seize it and hoard it. If you have to bruise egos along the way, so what? No one will care or even remember how you got to the top.

These are tips for career success from Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who teaches a provocative class called "Paths to Power." Among other things, Pfeffer warns students to avoid getting unduly slowed down by ethics, modesty or ideals. Getting to the C-Suite isn’t a journey for do-gooders, he says, and worse, an overactive conscience can be "dangerous to one’s organizational survival."

Let me say that Pfeffer is a world-class social scientist with 13 books under his belt. But I’m counting on my 40 years as a business leader to tell me what works in the real world; and if it’s about leading an organization to success, I’d bet on my approach over his 99 times out of 100.

His perspective on the no-holds-barred pursuit of power is both seductive and toxic. It can start students on an IV-drip that gets them hooked on getting ahead, even if it means bullying, hubris and ruthlessness. Your very health is at stake, too, he writes in his book "Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t." Your “life depends on getting power”: the less power you have, the more stress you’ll be under, and that doesn’t end well.

Pfeffer cites many colorful personalities who have played the power game with legendary tenacity: Steve Jobs, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Moses. But these were individuals who could get away with power-mad behavior. They called their own shots, ran roughshod over former allies and often stood alone.

Yet few who have worked with teams, or been in leadership roles in modern enterprises, would recognize, much less condone, such an extreme approach to leadership. In enlightened businesses, power isn’t grabbed, it’s created and distributed. It’s not hunted down and hoarded, it’s cultivated — by building relationships and developing trust. And it’s not about “appearing competent” as Pfeffer recommends. Rather, it’s about being the best leader and team member you can.

Evolutionary biologists have a thought experiment for the relative power of selfishness versus generosity: two groups are placed on separate islands with no way to communicate. On one island, it’s everyone for himself. On the other, everyone works together to achieve broader goals. Wait a few hundred years, and you’ll find two very different societies — one in a state of constant, near-psychopathic conflict, the other successful and harmonious. As the biologists concluded, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

In the same way, any business, group or team that wants to succeed for the long pull must rely on collaboration, innovation and high productivity — the fruits of sharing power, of teamwork and of diverse points of view. Enabling people to do their best work generally means distributing power to those who earn it.

You can choose your own “path to power” and what you do along the way. Here are a few thoughts that I would recommend for your journey:

1) First take control — of yourself. Control yourself and your own life choices, then worry about influence with others. Good self-control is the basis for a calm but confident projection of power, one that doesn’t rely on how much status you’ve “secured” in an organization.

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