Overview of Law #1: Never Outshine the Master
Ensure that those above you always feel superior. But don’t overdo it when trying to impress or please them, or you’ll inadvertently make them feel insecure and you’ll suffer the backlash. Go out of your way to make your bosses look better and feel smarter than anyone else. Never outshine the master.
Principles of Law 1
When it comes to power, eclipsing the boss is a particularly dangerous mistake. People in power need to feel secure in their position, superior to others in intelligence and charisma, and deserving of their perks. When they feel insecure, they lash out.
Whenever you demonstrate your talents you provoke resentment and envy (manifestations of insecurity) in others, whether they’re bosses, subordinates or peers. Of course, you can’t spend your life worrying about everyone’s petty jealousies, but you need to pay special attention to your approach with superiors because of their greater ability to harm you. They can make heads roll, although not as literally as did kings of the past. This is why it’s important to never outshine the master, your superior.
To avoid rocking a superior’s boat, don’t try to win his approval by showing off your gifts and talents. He may seem appreciative but at the first opportunity, he’ll replace you with someone less talented and less threatening. He won’t admit the real reason — that you’ve undermined his sense of security — but will find another reason to get rid of you.
That’s what happened to Nicolas Fouquet, King Louis XIV’s finance minister. Fouquet tried to ingratiate himself with the king by staging a huge, lavish party at his newly completed chateau to honor the king. It was such a great party that people couldn’t stop talking about it, which made the king feel he’d been outdone. He had Fouquet arrested the next day on a trumped-up charge and imprisoned for the rest of his life. The king also replaced him with someone whose parties were always dull, and he built his own chateau using the designers and landscapers that Fouquet had used. Fouquet hadn’t learned the lesson to never outshine the master.
Not much has changed since the time of Louis XIV, in terms of bosses needing to feel and appear superior.
Two Caveats to Law 1
There are situations in which it’s hard to follow Law 1, never outshine the master. You can unintentionally outshine your boss just by being yourself (especially if he or she is extremely insecure and not very appealing). Your natural talents, just by virtue of their existence, may make the boss look inferior.
- Response: If you can’t help being superior, try to avoid extremely insecure leaders, or find a way to disguise your good qualities when around them. That way, you remain in control instead of being a target of their insecurity.
Don’t think that because the boss likes you, you can do anything you want to. If you take your status for granted and let favors go to your head, you’ll overstep and the boss will feel undermined.
- Response: Maintain a sense of limits. Never forget your place or feel you’ve earned your privileges.
Use Flattery to Make Sure You Never Outshine the Master
Make a point of flattering your boss, but be discreet. For instance, if you’re more intelligent, seem to be the opposite. Act naïve, making it seem like you need her expertise. Make harmless mistakes that will give you the chance to ask for her help. Bosses like to share the gift of their experience. If your ideas are better, attribute them to the boss in a public way.
Putting to Work Law 1
In the early 1600s, Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo took care to avoid eclipsing his bosses, the wealthy Medici family, whose members included popes, queens, and a string of dukes. As Galileo’s patrons, the Medicis provided vital support for his research. Flattery was also central to his strategy. Galileo never outshone the masters.
When he discovered the four moons of Jupiter, Galileo used his discovery as a way to honor the Medicis’ greatness. He told a story based in mythology that described the four moons as representing the four Medici sons revolving around Jupiter, which represented their father, Cosimo II, the grand duke of Tuscany.
Galileo ensured the Medicis would feel and be seen as more important than his discovery, and thus not be threatened by it, by associating them with the stars’ brightness. As a result, Cosimo II made Galileo his official court philosopher and mathematician with a salary. This was a great use of flattery to make sure you never outshine the master.
Exceptions to Law 1
If your superior is a fading star, you don’t need to be afraid of outshining her. Don’t be merciful either — she didn’t achieve her power by being merciful. Gauge her strength:
- If she’s weak, quietly hasten her downfall; outdo her at key moments.
- If she’s about to topple, just let it happen or you’ll look like you’re piling on.
- If your superior’s status is strong, but you know you’re better, wait patiently. Power naturally ebbs and flows. Your boss will fall eventually, and if you play your cards right, you’ll outlast her.
But in general, remember Law 1: Never outshine the master.
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- Why you should never outshine your boss
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