Overview of Law #41: Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes
If you succeed a great person or famous parent, find or create your own space to fill. Sharply separate and distance yourself from the past. Create your own identity, style, and symbols, and follow your own course. Beware of slipping back into the past.
Principles of Law 41
Many successors struggle when they have to succeed a great leader or famous parent. It’s difficult because the predecessor succeeded by building power from scratch. The successor is starting with a fait accompli, which is difficult to improve on. This is why you should avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes.
There’s also outside pressure on the successor to continue on the same course, since it’s working, rather than break with tradition and precedent. The successor may be afraid to lose his inheritance as well, and therefore hesitates to change things.
But power requires you to appear larger than other people. When you’re stuck in a great predecessor’s shadow, it’s difficult to project even more greatness. But if you find yourself in this situation, there are ways to overcome it.
According to Law 41 of the 48 Laws of Power, you need the ability to fill a vacuum, or to occupy and dominate a new space. When you succeed a great leader, you must find or create your own space to fill.
To avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes, start creating your space by separating yourself from your predecessor:
- “Kill” the past and your predecessor by disparaging them. Contrast young with old, the new era against the old era. When John F. Kennedy was elected president, he did everything he could to distinguish himself from Dwight Eisenhower and the fifties era, by making the old look stodgy and the new vigorous and exciting. For instance, instead of playing golf, which was associated with Eisenhower and an older generation, Kennedy played football on the White House lawn.
- Use symbolism to physically distance yourself. King Louis XIV built his own palace, Versailles, which was unlike any that had come before. He established his own rituals, rejecting those of the past.
- Burn the instruction manuals: When General Douglas MacArthur took charge of American forces in the Philippines in World War II, an aide gave him a book of instructions from predecessors. MacArthur told him to burn the manual and any copies; he would make his own decisions in his own way. Similarly, you should reject precedent, and learn to respond to circumstances, which will be different from those of the past.
- Most importantly, look for vacuums to fill. While there may not be physical territory or kingdoms to conquer, there are always problems and challenges that have defied solution. Act boldly — most people are afraid to break sharply with tradition, but they respect and admire those who do.
On a cautionary note, beware of becoming more like your predecessor over time, as children get more like their parents as they age. Continually recreate yourself, and fill new voids. Don’t rest on your laurels or slip into the ways of the past.
Putting Law 41 to Work
Here is an example of how to apply Law 41 of the 48 Laws of Power: Alexander the Great, who succeeded his father, King Philip of Macedonia, set out to be completely different. Philip created an era of strength and prosperity, but Alexander despised his domineering stance toward his son, as well as his cautious and prudent style of ruling, and pleasure-seeking lifestyle.
When he became king, Alexander was bold and reckless, strengthening his hold throughout Greece, conquering Persia and expanding into India. On a march into Persia, he came upon a chariot tied to a tree with a so-called Gordian knot that no one had been able to untie. He slashed it with his sword, demonstrating he would do things his own way.
He didn’t stop with conquering Persia — he didn’t want past triumphs to surpass the present, so he never rested on his laurels.
Exceptions to Law 41
Are there any exceptions to Law 41 of the 48 Laws of Power? Should you ever not avoid stepping into a great man’s shoes? There are times when it pays to do something the way it was done in the past. Don’t reject something useful out of spite; you’ll look childish. Emulate what was done well, but beware of getting stuck. In general, it’s safest to follow Law 41 of the 48 Laws of Power: Avoid Stepping into a Great Man’s Shoes.
Meanwhile, keep your eye on potential future rivals, who are rising up in hopes of taking your place.
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