Risk was popular in college. A realistic game of global geopolitics, winning it depended on alliances, betrayals, and favorable rolls of the dice. I was never very good at Risk, and instead spent most of my time playing chess or bridge, at which I achieved adequacy.
I did win one game of Risk, though. It was against the two best players in the dorm, too. How? My friend Steve and I agreed in advance to not attack each other. The simple expedient of a reliable alliance outweighed all other considerations. We divided the world in half and quit, to the chagrin of our defeated opponents, who, irony of ironies, described our simple tactic as cheating. Apparently honoring a commitment violates the rules of Risk.
It also violates some of The 48 Laws of Power, the unwholesome but highly useful reference recommended in last week’s column for anyone who wants to achieve influence in a large organization. While considerably more shallow than Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, or even Anton Jay’s Management and Machiavelli, The 48 Laws of Power has the advantage of painting-by-numbers: It’s formulaic and easy to follow.
If the book is so unpleasant, why is it important? Simple: As a wise man once said, the only thing worse than having to play stupid games is losing at stupid games you can’t avoid playing. Even if you eschew these techniques yourself, if you can’t recognize their use by others you won’t be able to nullify their effects.
The book is missing something important: An indicator … a thermometer bar perhaps … to indicate which laws are novice, intermediate, and advanced techniques. This would be helpful because many of this book’s suggestions require significant finesse for success.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you have no scruples. You buy the book, study the laws, perfect your technique, and so begin your meteoric rise to the top of your company. Chances are good that even as your career advances, your ability to lead will decline.
Evaluate each Law on its own merits — to be fair, some are the essence of leadership. Laws 28 through 30, for example, recommend that you “Enter action with boldness,” “Plan all the way to the end,” and “Make your accomplishments seem effortless.” This is good advice: Timidity is worse than inaction, you should always define the goal before taking the first step, and you should never let anyone see you sweat.
Other laws, though, impair your effectiveness as a leader. For example, concealing your intentions and saying less than necessary — Laws 3 and 4 — may confuse your rivals and prevent them from preparing a defense. Regrettably, it also confuses those you lead, and confused soldiers rarely win battles.
Taking credit for the work of others (Law 7) and creating a state of terror (Law 17) are also dreadful leadership techniques. They lead to sullen teams with no initiative or drive.
The very techniques that help you achieve power prevent its effective use.
The worst aspect of The 48 Laws, though, are their potential for poetic justice. Follow them yourself and you encourage their use by those around you.
And some of them will be better at the game than you are.