Power: The 'Required' Business School Elective

If we want more instances of power being used for good, we need to ensure that more good people understand—and are willing and able to use—the principles of power. 
Power: The Required Business School Elective

I BEGAN TEACHING an elective course on power when I arrived at Stanford as a full professor in 1979. I did so because power felt like an important topic that went mostly untreated in either core or elective courses in both undergraduate and MBA curricula. That year, Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter called power “America’s last dirty word,” even though, as she noted, power is crucial for effective managerial behavior. To this day, power and organizational politics, although ubiquitous in social and organizational life, remain topics that often make people uncomfortable. Thus, although more business schools offer material on power than they did almost four decades ago, currently too few places teach this material—and even fewer teach it using the copious social science research that challenges the “feel good” leadership platitudes that business schools typically tell their students.

The cost of business schools’ neglect and miseducation: business school graduates lose their jobs or promotion opportunities from their inability to manage organizational dynamics. At a Stanford alumni event in Washington, D.C., 63 percent of the people attending said they had suffered a substantial career setback during their careers. A former student estimated that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of his classmates lost their jobs in the first two years following business school. Bill Gentry, formerly of the Center for Creative Leadership, has documented leader ineffectiveness. Gentry argued that one out of every two leaders was a failure in their role.

Business schools can and should do better. Gerald Ferris has developed and validated a political skills inventory with four dimensions: networking ability, interpersonal influence, social astuteness, and apparent sincerity. People can assess themselves and/or have others assess them on these dimensions, and then develop these skills with practice and coaching. Data show that leaders with more political skill lead higher-performing teams, and studies demonstrate how political skills benefit people’s careers.

Research shows the people educated in network structure concepts are more likely to receive top performance evaluations and be promoted, and people exposed to a social networking tool build information-rich networks that increase both their work performance and job security. And Amy Cuddy’s research on “power posing” has shown that job candidates who engage in this expansive posture before a stressful job interview perform better during their interview. Although questions have been raised about whether power posing affects the blood chemistry of the person doing the "posing," there is much less controversy over whether those who observe someone else’s body language change their perceptions of that person’s power. Moreover, discussing research on the behaviors and personal attributes that affect power can spark compelling discussion with students about steps they can take to increase their own power and confidence as leaders.

Case examples abound of students benefiting from their study of power. One second-year MBA student, for his “doing-power” project in my class (where students are asked to use the course concepts to increase their power or accomplish a task in an organization they belong to), was named by one of the leading German business magazines as one of the top 100 people in the internet economy within six months of submitting the project. That recognition helped him start a successful venture capital and high-technology consulting business right out of school and get invited on a foreign trade delegation with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Another student, named one of Brazil’s CEOs of the future by a leading Brazilian business publication, became a CEO upon his graduation. Numerous other students have used the lessons from the class to accelerate their careers post-business school in companies ranging from Amazon to management consulting firms.

To help students in their careers and their lives, there should be much more education on power and influence. To that end, a course on power should contain the following elements:

  1. Some coaching resources, so students have people to help them set ambitious goals and overcome internal roadblocks to actually using the material.
  2. Projects and self-reflective exercises that cause students to apply the concepts to their own lives and careers, because we know that implementing knowledge increases information retention.
  3. Case examples of people who are not celebrity CEOs (who are not likely to be completely candid about what they did to rise to the top) but instead, people who are similar to the students but more advanced in their careers—people who can serve as realistic role models because they have successfully achieved power.
  4. Social science research that exposes students to the realities of organizational and social life.

Such research could include material on how common and unpunished lying is, and why. Why being nice (as measured by agreeableness) is negatively related to career success, particularly for men. What are the principles of effective networking, including the need to spend more time on relationships. Why asking for things is often successful. How and why perception becomes reality. Why self-promotion, including the display of unwarranted self-confidence and the use of media relations to build a personal brand, can be quite effective career-enhancing moves. How to find positions that provide the best opportunity for exposure to senior management. What the personal qualities are that make acquiring and exercising power more likely. And such research could possibly include material on the price—the personal costs—of acquiring and exercising power. All of this material is taught in my Paths to Power class and is explored in my book Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t.

Elective courses on power have achieved far-reaching success, with, for instance, former Stanford doctoral students creating electives to teach at schools worldwide. Meanwhile, other educators have incorporated material on power and organizational politics into core business classes. In my experience students appreciate these ideas and instinctively understand that much of the current material on “leadership” bears little resemblance to a world in which some of the most “admired” and powerful leaders include individuals who are known for their tempers and being willing to say and do whatever it takes to be successful.

Business schools have a responsibility to teach people what we know about human behavior. We should teach not just what “should” be but what “is.” Or as I am fond of saying, if we want more instances of power being used for good, we need to ensure that more good people understand—and are willing and able to use—the principles of power.


Jeffrey Pfeffer Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. The course outline for his class on power can be found at jeffreypfeffer.com.

Research References Consulted

“Career Success Implications of Political Skill.” The Journal of Social Psychology, 2009.

“Derailment Signs Across Generations: More in Common Than Expected.” The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 2011.

“Development and Validation of the Political Skill Inventory.” Journal of Management, February 2005.

“Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012.

“If You Need Help, Just Ask: Underestimating Compliance with Direct Requests for Help.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008.

“Leader Political Skill and Team Performance.” Journal of Management, June 2004.

“Lying in Everyday Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996.

“The Network Structure of Social Capital.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 2000.

“Preparatory Power Posing Affects Nonverbal Presence and Job Interview Performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015.

“Social Networking Effects on Productivity and Job Security: Evidence from the Adoption of a Social Networking Tool,” Journal of Information Systems Research, 2013.

“Sources of Power of Lower Participants in Complex Organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly, December 1962.

“Stand Tall, But Don’t Put Your Feet Up: Universal and Culturally-Specific Effects of Expansive Postures on Power,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013.

“Teaching Executives to See Social Capital: Results from a Field Experiment.” Social Science Research, September 2007.

“Why Do Dominant Personalities Attain Influence in Face-to-Face Groups? The Competence Signaling Effects of Trait Dominance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009.