The career of Rebekah Brooks, the head of Rupert Murdoch‘s British newspaper subsidiary News International, reads like something straight from my writings and class about power. In her rise to the top, from secretary to editor of the now-closed News of the World in just 11 years, she made effective use of many of the strategies I teach about.
First, she obviously got from an early age that people like people who are similar to themselves. Brooks took up horseback riding to be close to an editor who enjoyed that activity, golf to get close to someone else, and sailing to become close to the Murdochs. She seems to have instinctively understood a principle that marketing guru Keith Ferrazzi once articulated to my class at Stanford: Since your own ambition won’t, by itself, make you successful, the key is to ensure that some people already in power are in your corner. Success depends on getting powerful people to want to help your career along. Similarity helps cultivate that desire in them; so does outright flattery.
Second, Brooks got a shortcut to greater power thanks to a willingness to succeed on different terms than those dictated by the establishment. On this point, Malcolm Gladwell has writteninsightfully about how underdogs often manage to win, whether at sports or war. He notes that in most fields of competition, the way a game is played tends to reflect and perpetuate the strengths of the established power players. Therefore, for those not already high in the standings, the best hope is to ignore those norms, if not actually the rules, and change the game. Gladwell’s examples of unlikely successes include a girl’s basketball team that pushed the envelope by employing a full court press throughout their games, and Lawrence of Arabia, who used sabotage and subterfuge to defeat a much larger Turkish military force. Under Rebekah Brooks’ leadership, The News of the World did things its own way, and prospered from the differentiation.
Neither Brooks nor, for that matter, Tina Brown, who while editor of Vanity Fair put a picture of a mostly nude and very pregnant actress Demi Moore on the cover, built the circulation of their media properties by being dull or boring. You have to be audacious to get noticed. A case I often refer to is that of American businessman Reggie Lewis, the first African American to build a billion dollar company (Beatrice Foods). Lewis was able to gain admission to Harvard Law School without taking the LSAT. He didn’t even fill out an application until after he had been accepted.
But as demands mount in Britain for Rebekah Brooks’ resignation, it is another principle of power-seeking that her experience may end up proving best — and it’s the one that makes teaching power strategies so hard. So often my students arrive hoping for rules that are foolproof and linear: when I tell them something works, they want to believe that if a little of it is good, more must be better. Power, like many things in the world, doesn’t work that way. With salt and other minerals in the human body, a little is required to live; an excess will poison a person. The secret to power is not figuring out what to do and doing it more than anyone. It is figuring out what to do and then doing it just enough.
Flattery is great, up to a point. Beyond that, your flattering of others will cause you to look powerless and you will only be known as a suck-up. Similarity is an important basis of interpersonal attraction, but people aren’t really interested in being with their clone. And yes, to be different and unconventional, it can be useful, maybe even necessary, to break rules, but this may be the slipperiest slope of them all. When you find yourself presiding over an organization where it is not considered beyond the pale to hack into cell phone accounts of politicians, media figures, and missing and murdered children, things have gone too far.
All this goes to show why the deliberate pursuit of power is not for the faint of heart. With no simple rules or easy guidelines, every step must be considered and its multiple effects considered. If you don’t do something to differentiate yourself and stand out, you will blend into the background and never get promoted. But if you plunge into a strategy of differentiation and flout social norms, you can lose the sense of where the line really is, until it has been crossed and people are calling for your head.
Rebekah Brooks seems to have an instinctual sense of power strategies, but she will have to reflect on this episode to learn the most important lesson of her career — and to arrive at a happy medium between criminality and anonymity.
(This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network on July 11, 2011)