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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Laws of Power

My son Alton is in a state prison in Florida.  He recently requested that I order two books for him: The 48 Laws of Power and Seduction, both by Robert Greene.  I agreed to get the books on one condition.  That I would also order a set for myself and that we would coordinate our readings and share our thoughts.  Alton chose to begin with The 48 Laws starting with the Preface and Chapter One.  The Preface proves Robert Greene is an excellent writer—his writing flows and develops anticipation.  The subject of the Preface is power—how the presence of it is a basic human need.  Some people want to deny that they would ever think of wanting to wield power.  This is (since power is a basic human need) always disingenuous and can be seen as a devious attempt to exercise it indirectly.  I would add only one thing to the Preface—a distinction between power and influence.  To use the aristocratic court as an example (as Greene does), the King in my view has power but the courtier has influence.  Of course, influence is a form of power, but it is not structurally enforced.  In other words, on an organizational chart one can be in a lower position (or not shown at all) and still wield influence greater than the structural power position would suggest.  Alton is in prison and as such lacks structural power—in the prison organizational chart “prisoner” may be excluded entirely.  But nevertheless he continues to have the basic human need for power.  This need can be met by sublimating his power needs into the exercise of influence.  He can exercise influence over his organizational equals—other prisoners—and even the prison staff.  I am not ignoring the informal organizations that prisoners can form; I am just saying that even in the formal organization of a prison system, power can be exercised at all levels through the exercise of influence.

Chapter One deals with the first law: Never Outshine the Master.  “Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.  In your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents or you might accomplish the opposite—inspire fear and insecurity.  Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.”  I call this the “damper down law,” and thank goodness it has limited application. The chapter gave examples of those who violated this law (and failed) and those that abided by it (and succeeded).  The key is not to make your boss feel insecure.  Of course, no boss wants to hire an individual and the next day feel that the fresh hire is already eyeing the bosses own job and is presuming to replace him at first opportunity.  It’s obvious that the new hire lacks necessary empathy and therefore has a fundamental flaw in his intelligence.  However, I cannot agree totally with Greene’s assumption that this law applies to all bosses. Organizational structure greatly influences the need to dampen brilliance.  It is often the case that we work in teams.  When the team excels, all get credit, recognition, and sometimes concrete rewards.  Therefore, a team captain or coach delights in exceptional talent and individual achievement.  Teams tie fates together and can thus release great energy and creativity in geometric proportions.  When one excels, all excel.  My suggestion is that if you find yourself in a “damper down” environment that you evaluate the value you place on freedom and individual expression.  A change of environment (even if it means less money) may be necessary.  A prison, while it cannot tolerate challenges to structural authority, may nevertheless wish that inmates excel.  Nothing would make the evening news faster than a prison that could accomplish this—high rates of achievement in education, outstanding creativity, low recidivism, etc.  As the Miranda rights requirement places the officer and arrestee on the same team of human dignity; so, in a larger context, prisoner and staff can be seen on the same team as children of God.

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