Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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The 48 Laws of Power

Introduction

One of the most well-known management and career guides is The 48 Laws of Powerw, by Robert Greene. Reading some articles about it on the Internet, I was struck by how many of the laws were completely the opposite of my preference—which goes a long way to explain my experiences at E4 (if we assume the laws to be valid, obviously).

Below, I discuss some of them in contrast to my own natural inclinations. Note that even many left-out points are contrary to my nature and previous behaviour, but not typically in such an obvious or illustrative way. Others are left out for the simply reason that they have never had practical relevance to my past or have never figured in my thinking. A few have been left out because my comments would be too repetitive. On very rare occasions, there has been something that I actually agreed with.

A more fleshed out explanation that on Wikipedia can be found on a Greene fan sitee. I base my own statements partially on the explanations given there, and it may pay to have that document open in parallel.

The danger these laws pose

Many of the laws are such that they could, conceivably, be good for the individual, but bad for his team, his projects, and his organisation. Indeed, if we assume that the 48 Laws are widely practiced and/or that those who naturally tend to act in the “appropriate” manner tend to get promotions, then the prevalence of incompetence and destructive behaviour in company hierarchies would suddenly be much easier to understand...

In particular, they tie in reasonably (but imperfectly) with my discussion of promotions. I re-iterate what I say there: Promotions have often been given to those I consider “fire them before they can do any damage” employees. Other articles of possible interest include Poor leaders and my attempt to explain why intelligence correlates poorly with success.

I note that several characteristics that I consider of vital importance in a good leader, e.g. humility about ones own abilities and flaws, are in direct conflict with the laws. As I have claimed in the past: The traits needed to be a good leader are different from those needed to become a leader.

Law 1 Never Outshine the Master

If there is one problem I almost constantly have, it is outshining the self-imagined masters and the medium fish. Consider the VP of product management at E4 or the discussions on the medium fish page. In particular, at E4, I made the gross mistake of thinking that my greater competence relative almost everyone else (in that low competence setting) would make me a big player in the company in short time. Instead, it earned me enemies and controversy—and I found my responsibilities and influence decrease over time, until I was at a level I had not known since my first year in the work-force...

Law 3 Conceal your Intentions

I have always tried to use honesty and open communications—and still believe that this is in the best interest of the organisation. Where I have deviated from this policy, it has usually been to save the feelings of others or to not get others into problems with superiors. Notably, in a conflict with someone else, I have usually tried to resolve the issue directly with my counter-part.

This has so far not had any noticeable positive effect (although this is necessarily hard to judge), and may well have brought me disadvantages.

Law 4 Always Say Less than Necessary

Similarly to Law 3, this is contrary to my mentality.

Law 5 So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life

Again similar to Law 3. In particular, I have always considered contents more important than covers, and long (but incorrectly) assumed that others do the same. I have not tried to inflate my image, but to remain modest—which I argue is what a good man should do. Importantly, other than suggested, I have not tried to poke holes at others reputations, but actually often kept quiet when I should have spoken out about someone who was incompetent or uncooperative. (BA2 is the prime example—and the one with, by far, the worst consequences.)

Law 6 Court Attention at all Cost

Similar to Law 5, but compounded with some amount of shyness and a dislike of over-much attention.

Law 7 Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit

The first part, I can see as somewhat justified (depending on the exact circumstances); in particular when it goes more in the direction of delegation and supervision, rather than a lazy sitting around at the cost of others.

The second part, however, is entirely alien to me: Not only is this something which goes against my ethics, but is also contrary to the recommendations I have seen in books on how to lead teams (where giving due credit, and to always pass credit on, are common advice).

My suspicion is that this strategy makes for a good career by impressing (through deception) superiors, but also results in an unmotivated and aggravated team: Good for the practitioner; bad for his employer.

Law 11 Learn to Keep People Dependent on You

Another case of good for the practitioner, bad for the employer. I have, if anything, had my mind on doing the opposite, notably by writing easy to read and well-documented high-quality code. In fact, I would argue that the perfect employee is one who manages to make himself redundant.

Law 14 Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy

Again, a kind of thinking which is foreign to me.

Law 19 Know Who You’re Dealing with – Do Not Offend the Wrong Person

I tend to get into conflicts with people who are incompetent or negligent—and I always tried to stand up for what is right. Unfortunately, my naive assumption that others are mostly mature, rationally thinking, and willing to look at the cause, not the person, has been almost consistently proved incorrect.

To make matters worse, I have been disproportionally likely to get into conflict with people of some importance. This likely for two reasons: Firstly, middle managers and colleagues “on the career path” are typically in the lower half of the field competence-wise (in the software industry!). Secondly, I tend to have an eye for the big picture and am well aware that putting pressure on a longer lever yields better results. As a consequence, I have often pointed to errors and possible improvements in e.g. central procedures, rather than just the work of low-level individuals—and this usually implies communication with middle-managers and above.

Law 21 Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker – Seem Dumber than your Mark

Very similar to Law 1.

Law 24 Play the Perfect Courtier

Again, something foreign to me; again, something that would have benefited me enormously at E4 (while, again, being bad for the employer).

Law 26 Keep Your Hands Clean

I have always gone by a policy of freely admitting mistakes, taking the responsibility, and, if needed, doing better. Those who refuse to take responsibility, refuse to improve themselves, refuse to admit to not being perfect—well, they drive me up the wall.

Law 27 Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following

Very foreign to me—and if I did not know of the highly naive cult around Steve Jobs, I would have called it nonsense.

Law 30 Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless

On the contrary, I have tended to down-play my accomplishments—again trying to be humble.

Law 34 Be Royal in your Own Fashion: Act like a King to be treated like one

While dignity and good manners are of value, I have also tried to avoid giving a “more royal than thou” impression, even when I have felt superior (if often unsuccessfully). To actively put on a crown when I am around people whose competence and judgment I value, that is entirely alien to me.

Law 38 Think as you like but Behave like others

Hypocrisy and theatrics have never been my strong points—but I do acknowledge that this advice, when taken in the right spirit, has a lot to it. See also my Tall Dancer article.

Law 46 Never appear too Perfect

Very similar to Law 1.