The Real Key to Power? Play by the Rules

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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We’re taught that in order to be powerful and innovative, we need to break the rules. But while some rules are made to be broken, many principles became rules because they were effective. More often than not, it pays to play by the rules, especially if your goal is power.

Below, discover the top 15 rules for power. We’ll cover how these rules of power came from the aristocratic court system and how we can still play by the rules today to gain power in the modern world.

Overview: Play By the Rules

Courtiers of old were often masters of manipulation, experts at working their schemes within specific rules of behavior required in court. Learn from the courtiers’ failures and successes, and you can rise in any system. This is how you play by the rules of the court.

The Rules of the Court

To thrive in whatever court or environment you’re playing for power in, learn the rules and know how to manipulate them. Even in modern times, a skilled courtier or functionary who can successfully play by the rules and navigate and thrive in the world of power has great power himself. There’s much you can learn about how to do this from studying courtiers of the past.

The rules that governed court politics in the days of kings remain applicable today. Here are a few of them, and why you should play by the rules:

  • Don’t brag: Bragging about your achievements stirs up resentment among your peers, as well as backstabbing.
  • Appear mellow and laid-back: When you’re working hard, make it look easy so people admire your capability.
  • Be judicious with flattery: Flattering your superiors too much stirs up suspicions about what you want. Employ subtle flattery, for instance by downplaying your talents to make your superior look good.
  • Be noticed, in a good way: This is a tricky balancing act. You want to be noticed without seeming to promote yourself. If you’re not noticed, you’ve no chance to become more powerful. Adopt a distinctive style, but don’t go overboard.
  • Adjust your style: Adjust your style and way of speaking to fit the occasion. If you can’t adapt to other cultures and circumstances, you’ll be ineffective.
  • Don’t be the bearer of bad news: The cliche about the recipient of bad news killing the messenger is valid. Do whatever you have to to shift the responsibility for delivering bad news to a colleague.
  • Don’t get overly familiar with your boss: Your boss typically wants a subordinate, not a friend. If he acts friendly toward you, reciprocate, but warily. Otherwise, assume a formal manner.
  • Don’t directly criticize a superior: Sometimes you need to share negative feedback to avoid backlash later. But do it as indirectly and gently as possible.
  • Rarely ask superiors for favors: Ask for favors only rarely because having to reject a request will stir guilt and irritation. Try to earn your favors, so your boss grants them without your asking.
  • Don’t joke about appearance: Never joke about your superior’s appearance or taste, even outside her presence. It will come back to bite you.
  • Don’t be a critic: If you always criticize, you’ll draw criticism in return. Conversely, when you credit others’ achievements, you’ll draw attention to your own.
  • Be self-aware: Learn to see yourself as others are likely to see you, so you can avoid behavior that others might find offensive.
  • Control your emotions: Like an actor, learn to disguise your real feelings and produce whatever emotion is required. Control your facial expressions too.
  • Keep up with the times: You don’t want to seem like a relic, but don’t push the boundaries of new styles and expressions either.
  • Be a joy to be around: Be pleasant so that others enjoy being around you. If you can’t be thoroughly charming, at least minimize your less stellar qualities.

Play by the Rules: Examples

Here are some historical examples of successes and failures at playing by the rules. The underlying theme is subtlety.

Play by the Rules: Successes

  • During the Han dynasty, Chinese scholars compiled court chronicles that included stories, statistics, and reports of wars and events. At times they also inserted descriptions of strange phenomena such as geese flying backward. These were indirect warnings to the Chinese emperor of the potential for making a mistake. The emperor was godlike and couldn’t be criticized, so these warnings were a gentle way of pointing out a problem without putting anyone’s neck on the line. Chinese scholars played by the rules and their views were heard as a consequence.
  • When the French architect Mansart was tasked by Louis XIV to draft plans for some minor additions to Versailles, he was careful not to seem arrogant. He always included small flaws in his drawings that the king would point out. Mansart would thank the king profusely and praise his astuteness. Mansart made the king look smarter, and was rewarded with a royal commission for major work on Versailles.

Play by the Rules: Failures

  • A Greek student-philosopher, Callisthenes, had been trained in court etiquette but ignored his training when engaging in philosophical discussions with Alexander the Great. He rejected subtlety and spoke what he believed to be the unvarnished truth. As a result, Alexander had him killed. Callisthenes didn’t play by the rules. Lesson: Never assume your superior wants to hear your honest opinion.
  • Beau Brummell, an English dandy of the 1700s, was a popular authority on fashion and soon attached himself to the court of the Prince of Wales. Feeling secure in his popularity, he joked about the prince’s weight, calling him “Big Ben” to his face. Fed up, the prince ejected him from the court, and Brummell died in poverty, rejected by all, for his bad manners. Brummell didn’t play by the rules, and he paid the consequences. Never mock a superior’s appearance.

Although there are situations in which you may benefit from breaking the rules, more often than not, it’s a good idea to play by the rules.

The Real Key to Power? Play by the Rules

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  • Why you should never outshine your boss
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  • The 6 rules you absolutely must not violate, if you want to be successful
Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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