Friday, September 17, 2010

The Will to Power

Here's a fine review of what sounds as a tel-it-as-it-is book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't. According to the review
Mr Pfeffer starts by rubbishing the notion that the world is just—that the best way to win power is to be good at your job. The relationship between rewards and competence is loose at best. Bob Nardelli was a disastrous CEO of Home Depot. But he was paid nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to leave and quickly moved to the top slot at Chrysler, which then went bankrupt. Mr Pfeffer points out that CEOs who presided over three years of poor earnings and led their firms into bankruptcy only faced a 50% chance of losing their jobs (and perfectly successful senior managers are routinely cleaned out when new CEOs take over). There are plenty of things that matter more than competence, such as...
Silke would like this book.


Sérgio said...

There´s an interesting book on the subject of merit called "Judging Merit" that touches on some of these

But I think confusing this identification of reward with "power".

Anonymous said...

I think I started "studying" the subject in the early 70s when I witnessed my first major lay-off. As I was in Personnel I had access to all the twice a year assessment sheets including top management of the branch. Also as the German branch was only around 600 I knew everybody and I knew their assessment by colleagues. There was no relation between performance and assessment record which for me proved the Peter Principle.
If a boss has an underling he/she can't stand or by whom he feels threatened due to the underling's competence at work or at gossip oops intrigue it is much better he gives him good rates because that increases his chances to pass him on to another department. WegLoben is the term = praise away.

and so on and so on - but with all the cases I have witnessed I have never been able to find a common feature, but I am still working at it ;-)

Mr. Pfeffer seems to have written a nice book but I've seen no hint that he may bring me closer to that final revelation. and btw I have never ever met anybody who had solved the riddle.

one element is of course a willingness to crawl into what Sergio so nicely dubs an orrifice. Quite helpful is also to never feel any qualms when one bores people out of their mind with pompousified talks, writings and presentations.

Another important talent is to be the first to complain, if possible about something that is your boss's hobby horse so he can indulge and aggrandize himself by cleaning up the most likely non-existent or minor mess with a grand action which makes him look good with his superiors.
oops isn't that an art some of Israel's neighbours excel at?

Last but not least a complete lack of shame seems to be important as I saw last demonstrated by Melvyn King boss of the bank of England who told the Union with all the appropriate feelings that the mass of debt and the resulting mess was not their fault, that they, i.e. he and the bankers had missed "it", following it up in practically the same sentence with telling them that it was their solemn duty to pony up the money to save the country. No word of bankers' obligations to save the country, they have earned their billions rightfully and maybe he is right, creating such a mess must have been hard work, such hard work that a bus driver can never hope to compete.

And human nature being what it is, it seems the Union has decided that the most urgent country saving action they have to do is to join the Israel haters.

Kafka and Orwell would have a ball these days.


PS: the corporation bosses named as examples in the piece are small fish compared to what the bank bosses of the failed banks pulled off.

Sérgio said...


"Orrifices" is a term "created" by that weird Dutch at Elder´s. I claim no responsibility. :)

I haven´t read this book, but it seems to promise to "reveal" the secret workings of the corporate world in "candid" manner. Well, didn´t we all know that people stab each other to the top at these places, and that the "talests" of "successful" CEO´s seem to have a great intersection with the ones displayed by psychopahts?

What worries me most is the nefarious influence of this king of thinking on the Management staff at Universities, as if Universities were just a kind of corporation. This is a perversion of the concept of university as a center of knowlegde, research and teaching, and is already causing damage.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely apologize, but this doubling of the R makes the word orrifice for a German so rich in associations that I thought it could only come from you. That was an attempt at flattery, no it wasn't, it was an honest compliment.
In case nobody has told you, we Germans do our swearing rear-orrifice-concentrated while "my" Greek islanders always swore around the f-word. The most famous is by Goethe who has Goetz von Berlichingen say it in a play. Wikiquote has it accompanied by a most unsuitable picture. there seems to be a serious fight whether Goethe wrote "im" or "am" which I for one don't want really want to know. Common talk is "am".

As to universities you can't tell a whole society that greed is the ultimate good and expect professors not wanting to prove that they are better at it than others and if it is true that they are assessed partly on how many third-means (like corporate money) as we call it they can solicit, what do you expect.

But I get the impression that complaints about the decline of the universities is all over the centuries. The 2 sailors in Riddle of the Sands in 1903 moan often enough how way behind British academia is and how admirable the perfidious Germans are who want to conquer their island.

A major and important shift I see is that mental and manual labour drift further apart i.e. the man who invents the technique is getting further and further away from the man with the screw driver or whatever, they get less and less chance to brainstorm together as equals.


Sérgio said...


No apologies needed!

There´s used to be "firewall" between industry and university, intended to avoid conflict of interests, but this is disappearing fast. And the corporate-style competition for resources, the lack of modesty, the unchecked egomania is
the result of that.

Of course, you are right in the sense that Universities can´t and shouldn´t be sealed-off from society. But they should have their specific ethos which is supposed to be *very* different from those of corporations.

Social influence can be for good or bad. But some glaringly bad cases should be a warning sign: recall the almost unanimous support the nazis´s got from german universities (but, mainly from Medicine and Humanities fields; most of the best mathematicians and physicist were either fired or left, with the known exceptions); and nowadays there´s an increase in frauds in research, worrying trend.

Anonymous said...

I met my first professor (chemistry) getting himself a little extra income from industry in about 1963. He got a regular monthly something and would in turn let his students write theses matching our commercial interests. At the time I was working at a pretty small outfit of about a 120 people employed all in all.

I wasn't under the impression that that was a novelty or in any way unusual, the professor just happened to be an acquaintance of the family who owned the company. So the greed was there all the time. One hand washes the other. All of us from the pencil pusher part sneered at it considering it to have more than a whiff of letting oneself get corrupted.

But since you mention mathematicians and physicists I come back to my hobby horse. People from that field have blundered recklessly and maybe they should learn what for example doctors had to learn in my life-time and what the church is learning right now, that a bit of public grovel is asked for. I am so insistent on it because if some leading mathematicians would speak up they could probably help quite a bit to ease the pressure of the banks on governments.

I am willing to believe that mathematicians and physicists didn't participate but I wonder why. Did the regime not offer them what they needed? i.e. were they restricted in research or free speech? or was it the prospect of the atomic bomb that made them shy away.

The humanities are good at reasoning and I once tried to find a straight line of reasoning from my non-pious protestant family background to Nazism, not much of a problem. So I am not amazed at the humanities they can do beauty talks on everything, that's there job, first the thesis and then prove it by talk ;-) - I'm joking sometimes I come across very admirable people.
As to medicine one psycho who was good at computers told me that he could make a much better living at writing programs for doctors they'd gobble up everything and cry for more. That makes me suspect that they love machinery more than humans and I find these days doctors visits where they seem to be more interested in looking at their screens than at me more than a bit disconcerting.

But in the end it all boils down to what Zuckmayer's housekeeper said: when times get difficult, decent people tend to become a bit more decent. Let's hope that we'll prove to be among the decent if we should have the tough luck to get tested.


Sérgio said...


To begin with, a lot of the top mathematicians and physicist at that time in Germany were jewish. So, they were just fired or compulsory retired. There certainly were some nazis in the field: Biberbach, Teichmuller and Gentzen are the most famous in maths; and Heisenberg was a top physicists that stayed. Many non-jewish luminaries in math and physiscs tried to help their jewish colleagues (Hilbert, was disgusted by the nazis; Planck´s son was killed by the Gestapo).

The fact remains that the main support the nazis got at the universities were from students, medical scientists and people from humanities (philosophy, literature, history, languages, theology, law, anthropology, etc).
This must mean something, which in the book on the RSHA Wildst just touches briefly: that people trained in "hard" sciences were not very attracted to the pseudo-scientific, incoherent and irranional ramblings of the nazis, because in their profession they tended to put a prize on rationally, logic, consistency and proof.

Now, as for the techologists (engineers, applied chemists, managers, economists, etc) I don´t know much. But these are a different bunch of people from the basic-science crowd.

As for the bomb. Well, one has to consider many complex issues. For instance, most casualties in the war were caused by traditional bombs, not atomic ones. Also, it ended a war against an enemy, the japansese, that were willing to sacrifice the whole country to the glory of the emperor. Third, most of the job of building the bomb was made by engineers and technolgists (with the help of many physicists and mathematicians). The basic physical concepts behind it were discoverd years before the war, so there was no real inovative work on *basic* science at Los Alamos. Also, if I were a jewish physicist at the time I would have glady accepted to work in anything to stop the nazis.

Anonymous said...

no matter how frightening I found the bomb when I saw it first on a cinema screen I have no judgment on the American bomb. Had they not thrown the bomb and demonstrated its horror the Russians would have probably gotten away with the Berlin blockade the balance of troops being the way it was and then pressed on and I would have gotten the bad end of the stick. A callous point? yes but more soberly it was all very very touch and go at the time.

When I asked about the bomb I meant to ask whether the non-Jewish German physicists didn't want a part in a German bomb building because had that succeeded it would have meant at least for a time a triumph for Germany.

Other than that I don't believe that being devoted to basic science is much of a protection against madness. If there is something to it, that they behaved better than the others then my bet would be that they were furious they had lost their colleagues, the ones they urgently needed for inspiring talks and they felt cheated and robbed. As to politics the thing must have happened very much as a slippery slope, the "better" classes long completely incapable of believing that a rabble like those guys could make it to the top and not be controlled. I suspect that class snobbishness played a terrible role in it. We the academics, the aristocrats, the military brass are so superior that we can always regain control of people like that, if only we have another government the thing will vanish as fast as it came.

Therefore my bet remains on decency. A set of rules one abides by, this is beyond the pale, period. Ethics, call it what you want. One of my favourite reads right now is the Miss Manners column every wednesday in the WaPo. I think we need more of that.

As to the stories of Germans in good positions who despite being in favour of the Nazi-regime or going along with it helped Jewish colleagues or neighbours, they abound and crop up everywhere in English texts also. I don't know what to make of them, a lot sound too vague to make much of an impression on me.

The one I believe is from that German-Argentinian-German lady who said, when she picked up her passport the policeman told her to leave immediately and not wait till the morning and that that saved her life.


Sérgio said...


Of course, being a scientist per se is no sure protection against madness, bigotry, etc. But it *does* provide some protection. Just browse the internet looking for nazi maths and you´ll find very few, the famous ones being those three I mentioned. The others, if jewisht were fired, fled, hid, commited suicide or were killed. Non-jewish ones usually despised the nazis, some fled, some protested and paid dearly (were imprisioned, fired or worse). There´s lots of examples of decency here.

Same pattern in (basic) physics: the main stars were Lennard and Stark, from the older generation; the bright Heisenberg, well, even the nazis prefered to keep him, though he was harrassed for a while, untill his family connections with Himmler silenced them.