Q: What is the relationship between power and leadership?

As the late founder of Common Cause and cabinet secretary John Gardner commented, power is an essential component of leadership. Some people define leadership as getting things done through other people. In order to get anything done, leaders have to build and exercise both formal and informal influence—and influence is power in action.

Q: You've written extensively about power, including a recent book, Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don't. How do people learn to get and hold on to power?

Part of what people need to learn is that the world is not necessarily a particularly just or fair place, and that job performance is typically insufficient. The relationship between job performance and virtually any kind of career outcome measure, be it salary or promotion, is positive and statistically significant, but it is not huge. Doing a good job is not enough; you need to be doing more than that. In order to become powerful you need to make sure you manage your relationships with those in a position to affect your career, which is sometimes called “managing up.” You need to make sure that you build efficient and effective social networks, so that you are able to access the information required for you to effectively do your job and find new opportunities for yourself. You need to think about how you “show up at work,” in terms of how you act and speak in ways that inspire confidence. You even need to figure out how to make small things that you do for other people really matter. These are all ways of building power.

Q: Many people shy away from discussions of power…

It's considered to be not a nice thing. But power is a tool and you can use it positively or negatively. I'm a child of the 1960s, and for me this is about power to the people. This is about learning, as an individual, how to get power for yourself. For the last 30 or 40 years, we've been hearing the message, take control of your own life. You are responsible for your own weight, blood pressure, body mass index, and everything else around your health. Companies have been sending the same message: we don't owe you a career, we don't owe you retirement. Companies have basically thrown everything back onto individuals. That's fine, but it means individuals need to figure out how to empower themselves. Stop waiting for big mommy or daddy company to change. They're not going to.

Q: Where do ethics tie into leadership and power?

Ethics tie in through helping people figure out what they ought to do and how they want to live. But I only focus on topics in which I have a particular expertise. I'm not a moral philosopher or ethicist, so I teach and write about the tools, and hopefully people use those tools for good rather than evil. I probably shouldn't say this, because it's unduly provocative, but there is research by my colleague Benoit Monin that shows that people who believe they are more ethical than average actually wind up behaving less ethically. It's almost like, “I'm an ethical person, I've done good in this context, so I don't really have to adhere to all these other rules.” It's an interesting phenomenon. Our self-perceptions are not often very accurate, and so therefore you need to find some people who will tell you the truth. But of course, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, most of us don't want to hear the truth.

Q: Is hearing the truth going to be helpful to somebody who is in a position of power?

Of course. It's always helpful. One of the most important qualities in building power is the ability to have empathic understanding. But the research literature shows quite clearly that when people become powerful, they stop exercising many of the skills that got them there in the first place. And one of the skills that people lose is that they stop thinking about other people and their needs and interests. They fail to understand how other people could look at their behavior and not be as happy with it as they are. When General Shinseki told Donald Rumsfeld that there weren't enough troops in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld's response was to make sure his military career was over. Most people don't want to hear bad news. It's a relatively rare leader who actually wants to hear the truth, unfortunately.

Q: Can an organization be set up so individuals have less power but the organization overall might be more effective?

I'm sure there are ways of making organizations more effective. But my work focuses on individual power even though it's something that makes many people uncomfortable. Business schools are putting a lot of emphasis on ethical leadership. I want to know, what is the role of ethical leadership in a world of essentially unethical organizations? That sounds like a harsh statement, but that's pretty much where it is. My perspective is that individuals need to take care of themselves. Peter Cappelli at Wharton has written extensively about the changing nature of the employment relationship: turnover is up, job satisfaction is down, attachment is down, engagement is down. Companies have basically said to people, we're not responsible for you. People either haven't heard or they aren't taking it seriously, but they need to. If you look at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they have opposed the extension of the Family Medical Leave Act. They have opposed extending and increasing access to health insurance. They have opposed any kind of labor law regulation. This organization represents most of the large companies in the United States.

Q: And if people focus on gaining individual power, what do you see as the positive outcome for them?

Power can be monetized. You can turn it into influence and get things done. And power, to the extent that power is related to your ability to control your job and the conditions of your work, is actually related to longevity. There have been a bunch of studies that show that job control increases your lifespan. This is why I end the book with the statement, “Seek power as if your life depends upon it, because it does.”

Q: And this is all just a practical reality rather than any sort of an ideal?

It's a practical reality. Absolutely. The leadership literature does a horrible job of confusing the normative with the descriptive—what ought to be with what is. There's no question that if we all did what the leadership literature suggests, people and organizations would be better off, but the reality is that not many people are taking this advice, the countless leadership books notwithstanding. You need to figure out how you're going to negotiate that reality, not the world in which we all ought to live. People need to stop waiting for the beneficent organizational leader to arrive, because in most companies he or she hasn't and probably won't arrive.

Q: Is there anything to be learned from beneficent leaders?

Of course. There's much to be learned. Companies on the Great Place to Work Institute list actually outperform those that aren't, and they create much more benign and healthy work environments, both mentally and physically, for their employees. And it would be wonderful if we would all do that. But if you find out how we can get that to happen, let me know. Has there been an overall trend to the positive or the negative? People from the Great Place to Work Institute will tell you it's been to the positive. I will tell you that if you look at the data the Institute compiles on job satisfaction or employee attachment, it's going in the wrong direction—same thing with the job satisfaction data that the Conference Board uses. That doesn't mean that there aren't wonderful organizations doing amazing things, but overall, for the economy as a whole, this has become a very tough place to be.

Q: Do you see similarities between this book and Machiavelli's approach?

One thing he is famous for having written which I agree with is that if you must either be loved or feared, it is better to be feared.

Q: What you're saying is somewhat grim, yet talking with you, your affect sounds quite positive. How do you piece together a happy life with what you're seeing from the world around you?

One way to have a happy life is to be a full professor at Stanford and live in San Francisco. Living in the right place and having the right job—that's the simplest answer, and it's also correct. Another piece is that I believe if individuals learn the power skills they can have a better, healthier life with more leverage over what goes on around them. They can be more effective agents of change for themselves or for the society as a whole. Helping people learn those skills—that's my job. I don't try to worry too much about larger societal issues. That's outside of my scope.

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan