The 48 Laws of Power aka The Dark Side of Leadership

If there was a shadow world version of John C. Maxwell, it would be Robert Greene and his book “The 48 Laws of Power.” If you are looking for a book to test your morals, this is the book for you. There are likely still corners of the business world where this book is required reading, but for budding leaders looking to lead through any tactic other than “command and conquer,” read this book with a skeptical eye.

If you’re interested in all the laws, there’s a good post here without all the flair or fluff. For me, this was a frustrating book because there are some good nuggets within the 48 and each law tends to have, though veiled in malicious intent, solid points.

Toward the beginning, Greene notes, “By training yourself to be indirect, you can thrive in the modern court, appearing the paragon of decency while being the consummate manipulator.” Not a great start. This is (or was) a widely popular book, especially within the Hip Hop community with rapper 50 Cent eventually penning a book with Greene titled “The 50th Law” whose premise is essentially “fear nothing.” I don’t know the full contents of that book, but it seems like a more solid idea than most of what sits within The 48 Laws of Power.

The breakdown of each section is probably the best part of this book. Greene states the law, gives a brief intro as to what it means, and then gives background as to why it’s a good law. The historical aspects of this book kept me moving through instead of balking at each law and walking away. Some of the stories are insane, like the Houdini vs. Kleppini feud or the Bobby Fischer Story around the 1972 World Chess Championship. Each of these is great examples of the laws, but it would be wrong to put these folks too high on a pedestal. 

Below are some of the laws on some of the initial reactions I had to them. Again, when read through the right lens, there are some helpful anecdotes and good tips, but you have to be able to read past Greene’s intentions. This is not all shocking considering it comes from the same author that went on to pen “The Art of Seduction.”

Laws of “Power”

Law 3: Conceal your intentions
“Use false sincerity and misleading signals.” Hold your cards so close to your chest that no one ever knows what to expect. Off to a rolicking start here and a great way to get everyone to immediately distrust you.

Law 4: Say less than necessary
This is one I can get behind. Too many times we use loose language to fill the air when making a point, but in most cases, we can be more succinct and direct. Greene wants you to say less in order to manipulate people into trying to please you even further, by filling the silence for you by guessing what you’re thinking. One of my favorite things to pass on from other books (especially for 1:1s) is “never miss an opportunity to shut your mouth.” Taking this law into consideration as active listening instead of subtle manipulation is a better way to go.

Law 6: Get others to do the work for you but always take the credit
WHAT AM I READING?! I’m trying to think about two things on this law. The first is around how I would feel if I found out someone was taking credit for my work. It’s happened before. Back in school, someone stole my entire source code from a portfolio site, changed a few things and turned it in as their own. I was livid. I confronted the person and never trusted them again. I assume the same would happen now if someone took credit for an initiative or major project we were running. The second thought is how gross I would feel taking credit for my team’s work. No easier way to stifle collaboration than taking credit for something someone else did.

 

Meme Template taken from imgflip

Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument
Okay, I can get behind this one, but again, with a twist. For me, it’s more about “actions speak louder than words” or the “show, don’t tell” aspect of getting folks aligned when you feel you’re at a standstill. Greene would prefer you to crush your enemies thoroughly and not waste words. Essentially he wants you to embarrass them through dominance.

“Never teach them enough so they can do without you.”

Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you
Do you like vacation? Do you want your teams to falter any time you look away? Then follow this law. When you stifle growth by forcing people to be dependent on you, you limit both them and yourself. If everything falls apart when you are gone, you will never be looked at for promotion or stretch goals. Learn to delegate and challenge your teams, otherwise, you’ll end up stagnating pretty quick.

Law 18: Do not build fortresses to protect yourself
Isolation is dangerous. Again, Greene takes a bizzaro approach to this, but it’s something we should strive for. Collaboration on all levels makes our work better.

Law 26: Conceal your mistakes, have a scapegoat around to take the blame
Also referred to by Greene as “The fall of the favorite,” or “let someone else be the executioner,” this law makes sure you are never seen as unreliable or unable to be trusted. It also means no one will ever want to work for you in fear they will be the next to be thrown under the blame bus.

Law 28: Enter Action With Boldness
Starts off great with “Timidity is dangerous” then rapidly U-turns to “Boldness strikes fear. Fear creates authority.” Yikes. I know that’s 100% how I like to operate. By making everyone fear me (heavy sarcasm). Fear is a leadership lever that once pulled is hard to undo and folks will learn to avoid you.

Law 33: Discover each man’s thumbscrew
“Determine the weaknesses of those around you. Always seem interested to get people to let their guard down. BREAK THEM. Feed on uncontrolled emotion.” Oof. Should you want to know weaknesses of your team and peers? Yes, but more for knowing where you can fill those gaps or help make the team stronger. Not to crush folks into a fine powder.

corgi on railroad tracks

Just a photo of a happy Corgi to break things up a bit.

Law 35: Master the art of timing
“Learn to stand back when the time is not yet ripe. Anticipate the twists and turns. Hurriers may get there quicker, but they leave behind them a flurry of paper.” I can actually get behind this one. Not every project is going to be a “must do it now” project, and understanding the benefits of stepping back to get a better view of everything can be beneficial. I’ve come to appreciate this one quite a bit as we start enacting our work in 2021.

Law 39: Stir up waters to catch fish
Haven’t had any issues in a while? Greene argues that you should stir up trouble to re-assert dominance. Facepalm. Sure, sure, let’s just cause more problems for our already dependent-on-everything-we-do teams (if you accidentally followed Law 11).

Other talking points presented by Greene:

Other Titles For This Book:

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to recommend this book without a lot of caveats, but again, if you’re a new leader or new manager, it may be worth reading through with a skeptical eye to understand where your values lie. What do you think, am I being too hard on Greene? Am I super off base? Would be curious to know how others have read and thought about this book. 

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James
10 months ago

Dude reading this gave me shivers, thanks for sharing. I generally thought that leaders subscribed by these principles would be insane politicians or dictators, but it’s terrifying to think that there are leaders at companies that would look to these ideals and think “yeah I should treat other people this way”.

Andrew
Andrew
10 months ago

This reminds me of The Engineer’s Guide to Asserting Office Dominance, but not satirical…

John Hartley is a Director of Product Engineering at Beam Dental in Columbus, OH. With 5+ years of leadership experience he has worked in startups, agencies, and began his career as a freelance Front End Developer. Always looking to iterate, this blog is a place for him to share his knowledge as well as hone his craft, challenge assumptions, and build a strong base of leadership and management knowledge. Connect with him on LinkedIn

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