One of the most fundamental principles of power is that it is self-reinforcing. People with power have the resources to keep it — they are able to hire the best talent and access the best opportunities.
More important, other people like associating with power and success, a phenomenon that social psychologist Robert Cialdini has called "basking in reflected glory." And they will make all sorts of accommodations to be near success. Consequently, while likeability can often produce power, power and success invariably produce likeability. People choose to be with successful people and organizations, and then make sense of their choices by deciding that they actually like and respect those they are associating with.
I vividly recalled these principles as I read the numerous obituaries and remembrances following the death of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Three facts are clear from all of the media coverage describing this extraordinary man.
First, he was not a kind, sweet person to his employees and had few of the characteristics we associate with being a good boss. Dave Anderson, sports columnist for The New York Times, commented on Steinbrenner's rude firings of his managers, including the legend Yogi Berra. Steinbrenner ruled through fear and was wont to publicly insult both players and managers. He was tempestuous and prone to make snap decisions — one explanation for how he could hire and fire manager Billy Martin five times. He had a temper and often meddled in the day-to-day operations of the team.
The second fact is that Steinbrenner was phenomenally successful. Part of a syndicate that bought the Yankees for $10 million in 1973, at the time of his death that team was worth an estimated $1.6 billion. Under his leadership, the Yankees refurbished their old stadium and then built a brand new one. They pioneered television and marketing deals that brought in even more revenue. And, they won baseball games, league championships, and World Series at a rate exceeding any of their competitors.
And therefore, this third fact: Although you can find few articles — maybe no articles — on Steinbrenner that don't mention his temper, obscene language, and being a difficult boss, virtually all of the writing has a reverential tone for his accomplishments. Regular New Yorkers and former New York Yankees, even those he had abused, were in tears during the brief memorial at Yankee stadium. As Bruce Jenkins, a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Such a great, terrible man — and the template for success in American sports ... he didn't just make a difference, he rocked the landscape and changed it forever. If the details were grim, it's the memory that lasts."
Steinbrenner is not one of the power players I write about in Power: Why Some People Have It — And Others Don't, but he's a great example of how the pursuit of power can pay off. I am not arguing that Steinbrenner's behavior was acceptable — but that his outstanding success and resulting power made it accepted. I am not arguing that his management style was essential for the team's wins — but that the Yankees' dominance, both financially and on the playing field, made Steinbrenner's management seem legitimate. I am not suggesting that former baseball manager Leo Durocher's famous line that "nice guys finish last" is correct and that you have to be nasty to succeed — only that if you do succeed, few will take issue with your level of niceness..
Mostly I am arguing that regardless of whether or not we like it, the managerial flaws of powerful people will always fade into the background, and sometimes even be called endearing. Once you have it, much, if not all, will be forgiven.
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. His forthcoming book from HarperBusiness is Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't.