Columnist Phil Hardwick reviews Robert Green’s “The 48 Laws of Power” and talks with a former Millsaps MBA professor on how he used the book to teach strategic management, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
With another successful Mississippi Book Festival behind us and a political season ahead of us, it seems a good time to consider books and politics, or at least the convergence thereof.
For politicians, the book of choice is probably The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green. It is, after all, the number one best seller in Amazon’s Best Sellers list in Politics and Government. Published in 2000, it ranks number one in Amazon’s Best Seller list in History and Theory of Politics, number two in Success-Self help, and number three in Popular Social Psychology and Interactions.
The laws are derived from the lives of strategists and historical figures. For readers who are interested in the classics and historical figures as a discussion about leadership, this book is right on the mark. For example, Law 5 states, “So much depends on reputation – Guard it with your life.” Greene uses China’s War of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 207-265), P.T. Barnum’s decision to purchase the American Museum of Art in Manhattan and turn it into a collection of curiosities, and Thomas Edison’s experiments with electrocution experiments with small animals. Plenty of insights and fodder for discussion on the subject of reputation.
Each law has its own chapter, complete with a “transgression of the law,” “observance of the law,” and/or a “reversal.”
The book has over 68,000 reviews and an average review rating of 4.7 stars.
So, what is it about this multi-million New York Times bestseller described as, “… the definitive manual, for anyone, interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control?” And what is it about the book that really turned off some readers? Here is an example of a one-star review:
The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene is a repugnant manifestation of human manipulation, deceit, and moral bankruptcy. From start to finish, this book offers a guidebook to manipulate and exploit others, promoting a toxic worldview that undermines genuine human connection and empathy. It is a distressing embodiment of the worst aspects of human nature.
But one-star reviews are only two percent of the total reviews. Five-star reviews comprise 83% of the reviews. Also, the book is used in many classes as a way to explore the subject.
To gain more insight into the use of the book, I reached out to Dr. Ray Grubbs, retired Professor of Management at the Else School of Management, Millsaps College where he taught courses in Strategic Management, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership. He used the book in one of his courses.
Question: How did you use the book? Was The 48 Laws of Power a full course, a section, or a seminar?
Answer: I used The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene as the primary text for my MBA elective course in the Millsaps College’s Else School of Management taught during the summer semesters. The syllabus was designed around eight sets of six laws of power per class meeting to correspond to the number of meetings of the class in a summer term.
Each set of eight laws (Laws 1-8, 9-15, etc.) would comprise one class session. In addition to reading the set of assigned Laws, students would also make individual notes about the application of the laws in their work experience to personalize the response to each law. In addition, students were assigned to a team of two to five students depending on course enrollment. Each team would read the laws and select a movie they determined presented a good visual of each of the assigned laws in motion. The pairing of movies with sets of laws was the defining characteristic, unlike other MBA courses. I would select the first movie (I always started with The Count of Monte Cristo) so students would have an idea of what type movie I was looking for and then they and I would discuss their movie choice with them. The movies provided the class with a common reference when discussing, making for some of the liveliest classes in my 40-year teaching experience. I continue to miss this class interaction several years after retiring.
Q: What was the student reaction to the book and the course?
A: Student reaction was very positive once getting over the idea of watching movies in a class of MBA students. But once we were past the first movie and discussion, they realized this was a serious class with serious implications for their future work.
Q: Some say the book is controversial. Why is that?
A: The book might be controversial if used as a “how to” book, which is not the intent of the book.
Q: Which is your favorite “law?”
A: If I had to pick one Law as my favorite, I would select Law #29 – Plan All The Way To The End. My teaching focus is Strategic Management, and I also focused my consulting practice on Strategy, so I was drawn to this Law as it resonated with much of my experience.
Q: Other comments.
A: I was introduced early in my teaching career to the value of teaching Leadership in a business context by using classic literature. I used many leadership cases from the Hartwick Management Institute to supplement more business-oriented literature and cases. With using classic literature to teach leadership, it was not much of a stretch to use film to also teach Leadership and Power.