How to master ‘The 48 Laws of Power’

Los Angeles Lakers Andrew Bynum guns for scoring power: He is one of the notable personalities reading  The 48 Laws of Power. Photo/REUTERS
Los Angeles Lakers Andrew Bynum guns for scoring power: He is one of the notable personalities reading The 48 Laws of Power. Photo/REUTERS 

When Andrew Bynum walks into a room, people step aside.

At seven feet tall and 285 pounds, Bynum is the starting centre for the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.

He hurls his Mack-Truck-like shoulders against some of the biggest men on the planet every game night.

He recently came across a book that was as ruthless as anyone he’s encountered in the NBA.

“At first, I was shocked,” he says. “I thought it was cutthroat.”

Bynum started reading The 48 Laws of Power.

The best-selling book offers a collection of 48 laws that show people how to gain power, preserve it, and defend themselves against those powerful people who make their lives miserable.

Unlike most self-help books, The 48 Laws offers advice that the author freely admits is, at times, cunning and amoral.

It includes lessons like “Law 1: Never outshine the master” and “Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy.”

The lessons are distilled from colourful anecdotes lifted from 4,000 years of history.

They include insights into the scheming of powerful people such as Al Capone, P.T. Barnum and Henry Kissinger.

The book has proved to be so popular that it has spawned several sequels, one recently co-authored by the popular rapper 50 Cent, called The 50th Law.

Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws,” says our fascination with power is rooted in our DNA.

“We want to believe we’re descended from angels when we’re descended from primates,” Greene says. “This is part of our nature and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Greene says the struggle for power affects even the most benign human relationships.

Think of how babies threaten, badger and scheme to get their way, he says. “Children can be incredibly manipulative,” Greene says.

Business transactions

Greene, whose laid-back, soft-spoken demeanour seems at odds with his books, has long been fascinated with power.

At first, his interest was restricted to sports.

Then he earned a degree in classical studies and saw how power shaped history.

Greene says he received his next lesson in power when he began working as a writer in Hollywood.

Every transaction — business or personal — revolved around someone grasping for more power, he says.

Greene realised that Hollywood’s power elite didn’t act all that differently from the ancient Athenians and Chinese emperors he encountered in his classical studies.

He decided to share his insights in a book. “I wanted to show that what was going on was not new,” Greene says. “No one wanted to talk about how these incredible manipulative games had been going on for thousands of years.”

One of Greene’s central claims is that everyone must learn the rules of power.

He describes the world as a “giant scheming court,” and says we’re all courtiers, whether we like it or not.

“There is no use in trying to opt out of the game,” he writes in the introduction to the book. “... Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power.”

That’s the lesson that Bynum, the Los Angeles Lakers’ centre, says he’s learned.

Bynum likes Law 18: “Do not build fortresses to protect yourself — isolation is dangerous.”

It tells the story of Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China.

The emperor was so paranoid about his enemies that he slept in a different room each night and never let any of his subjects see him.

The result: He lost power because he lost touch. Greene’s lesson: Isolation exposes you more than it protects you.

Circulate among people, build allies and learn to spot your enemies.

“That was cool,” says Bynum, who says he has to be leery of people who try to take advantage of his celebrity.

“It’s good to be out there, to visit and to see your enemies and even be in the same room with them.”

Adam Ishaeik made Greene’s book required reading for a business management class he taught at Michigan State University.

His students loved it, he says, because it was more practical than most business or self-help books.

Ishaeik’s favourite law: Law 10: “Avoid the unhappy and unlucky.”

That law says that one should avoid people who always attract misfortune.

They can “infect” others with their pathology.

The law’s solution for dealing with a master of misfortune: Don’t help or argue with an “infector” or you will become “enmeshed” in their problems. Flee them. Don’t return the call.

Ishaeik says when he cut “infectors” off his life, he says, his life took off.

He is now the CEO of a company that secures government contracts for small businesses.

Too much

“If someone is always unlucky and things are always happening to them, deep down inside, there’s something that’s attracting it,” Ishaeik says.

Dov Charney, founder and CEO of American Apparel, is also a fan of the laws. He calls them laws of nature.

“Every single human interaction involves this power exchange,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that power can’t be generous or philanthropic.”

The book, though, has its critics.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is a Stanford University professor and management guru. People like lists, he says, but 48 laws are too much.

“If you give people a list of 48 things, they’re certainly not going to remember them in a situation when they need to use them,” says Pfeffer, author of the forthcoming book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t

Pfeffer says Greene’s laws are flawed because they are based on isolated historical examples.

Why not build laws around solid research, like a study or experiments?

But this does not rattle Greene. “I observe everyone else’s power games. It’s a beautiful position to be in.”