The One Thing You Need to Get Ahead; Debunked

by Lisa Petrilli

This post is serving as the platform from which Steve Woodruff and I will launch #LeadershipChat on Tuesday evening, October 12th at 8:00 pm Eastern Time.  As co-conspirators on this epic (we hope!) adventure we talked about how we wanted to launch this chat – the topic of which is vitally important to both of us for reasons you’ll come to understand as we all spend time together on Tuesday evenings – in a powerful way.  What better way than to discuss, well, you guessed it…power.

The backdrop for this post is an article entitled, “The One Thing You Need to Get Ahead,” which was written by Christine Lee and published in BNET, in which Christine interviews Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.  You’ll want to at least peruse this article if you’re planning on participating in Tuesday evening’s chat.

In the article Jeffrey argues that “what you need to succeed in the workplace is, above all, power.” 

One of the challenges in talking about power is agreeing on how to define it.  It has only five letters and yet 32 extraordinarily different definitions at Why do I say “extraordinarily” different? Because of the feeling I get when reading them. 

Some leave me feeling “empowered” – which to me is an uplifting, exalting and enlarging feeling.  Such as:

  • definition 23: to inspire; spur; sustain: “A strong faith in divine goodness powers his life,”
  • definition 3: great or marked ability to do or act; strength; might; force
  • and certainly definition 12:  Often, powers. a deity; divinity: “the heavenly powers.” One might even say should extend this definition to include, with a twist of goddess power…” but, alas, I digress…


Other definitions leave me feeling belittled, irate and in some cases sufficiently hopeless, such as:

  • definition 4.the possession of control or command over others; authority; ascendancy: “power over men’s minds”
  • and definition 32. the powers that be, those in supreme command; the authorities: “The decision is in the hands of the powers that be.”


Can you feel the difference?

So, when I read the article I asked myself, “from which lens should I view this article?” Because, the truth is, it’s all in how you define – and how you apply – your power that determines the height of your success.

If the former, using a very broad definition of this uplifting power that includes empowering, inspiring, motivating, acting with purpose, faith in our vision and in each other, and respecting – genuinely respecting – the divinity of each of us as equal humans, then there are some points Jeffrey makes on which I can agree with him. For example, he states that, “awareness, being tuned in to what’s going on, and looking behind what you see” can help you improve your power at work.  I think this is true.

For example, in my own experience leading teams and motivating direct reports, I discovered that my awareness of their unique strengths, what ignited their passion, and how best to motivate them did enable me to empower them in such a way that they were “aligned for success.” When they were successful, our team was successful, we met our objectives and my value and the team’s value in the organization increased.  This gave us further opportunities to move forward…a cycle of forward movement/power that increased with each rotation.

I also agree with Jeffrey that “will” as he defined it – drive, energy and ambition – along with sensitivity to others and awareness of what their motivations are, are indeed forms of positive power that can be of vital importance to your ability to “get ahead” and be successful. “Will” could be considered the engine powering the train and sensitivity/awareness enables the train to stay on track, avoid unnecessary and diversionary friction, and be eagerly awaited at the station.

Now, whereas in my experience in the corporate world “will” is an absolute necessity for success, sensitivity and awareness are not always found in top executives.  What am I implying? 

In my opinion many executives lack a fundamental ability to be sensitive to – which I view as respectful of – their employees and even their customers, and they balance this lack of positive power with an overabundance of the negative sort (command, force)… You’ve all met these people too.  In some cases they will “get ahead” but I’ll argue profusely that they’re rarely successful. In the end they crash and burn in their careers and I suspect their personal lives are usually devoid of fulfilling relationships.

Other areas of agreement between myself and Jeffrey: the importance of networking as a way to advance in a large organization, which I wrote about in my “Introvert’s Guide to Getting Promoted – Step One” blog post, and the magic of simply asking, which I strongly supported from a corporate perspective in “The Introvert’s Guide to Getting Promoted – the Most Important Step” and from my own personal perspective in, “What I Learned About Networking When I Asked a Stranger for a Kidney.”

But, alas, this is where our paths diverge. 

You see Jeffrey has an entirely different view of networking than I do.  In reading the article my perception is that he sees it as a means to an end.  I see it as a way of life.  I didn’t understand the importance of networking as a young executive, but over time I’ve come to understand that the power of networking lies in the power of genuine, authentic, selfless relationships that are forged over time out of a desire to truly help others succeed.

What fired-up my goddess sensibilities in reading this article is the assertion that,“you are not responsible for your own success. Your burning ambitions, or even your hard work, won’t make you successful. What will make you successful are those people higher up who have power over your career. Your job is to make them want to make you successful. And part of that is hard work and good performance, but part of that are the relationships that you build with them. That’s why hard work isn’t enough.”

If you’ve been reading for a while you’ve watch me share insights from my own transformational journey as I work to own my own personal power after years of mistakenly believing I was earning it from others.  That could not have been further from the truth.

I am the only one responsible for my own success – in my career and in life – and you are the only one responsible for yours.  I am the only one capable of owning my own, enormous personal power and you are the only one capable of owning yours.

Imagine if every free person who subscribes to the theory that people higher up control their careers as well as their destiny, at work and in life, were to own their own power and lay claim to their career destiny.  What could we all create together if we joined together, tapped into our unique and transformational selves, and stopped waiting for those on the “rungs” above us to want to make us successful?

I’m not sure, but I think it would be something incredibly powerful…

What do you think…?

Please share your thoughts in the comments – I cherish the ability to connect with you there!  And remember to stop by Steve’s house tomorrow for his video “counterpoint” which will also be a backdrop for tomorrow night’s #LeadershipChat!

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Photo is Thoroughbred Horse Race by Rennett Stowe.


  1. I have not read Pfeffer’s new book yet, Lisa, but he is brilliant and one of my favorite authors along with Bob Sutton. I agree with much of what they have to say, but not all of it. I also believe with you that even if you are not entirely responsible for your own success, you are never relieved of the responsibility to behave as if you were. I am am responsible for my actions at work, not for how others respond to my actions. Only I can empower myself, no organization or leader can do that for me. In the end, it might limit one measure of success (how high I rise in the hierarchy) but it does a great deal for my more intrinsic measures of success (the ability to live with and like myself). Hope I can make the chat tomorrow night! Thanks, Bret
    Bret Simmons´s last blog post ..United Airlines- More Inconsistent Service

    • Bret,

      You hit on such a great point about how we cannot control how others respond to us – as people, in regard to our work, etc… You’re right, about how that can impact how high we rise from a hierarchical perspective – and I love the way you wrap in the fact that intrinsically that may not be what matters most (to some).

      I really hope you’ll be able to make the chat – I’d love to see you share your perspective there! All the very best!

  2. Lisa,

    I believe that part of the inability to be “sensitive to” or “respectful to” others in the work place is in part the result of the transactional nature that defines so much of our existence – starting with the things that get measured and are judged important by the education system.

    I think another problem is the “cultural autism” suffered by so many. Our separation from Nature and our lack of somatic awareness means that we have trouble connecting to others. This gets magnified when it forms the core of those who make decisions.

    The path you have outlined is the only sensible one to be followed for the health of our communities – however defined.
    Hans Hageman´s last blog post ..Theory of Everything – My Thoughts On Stopping The Insanity

  3. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

    – A. Lincoln

    The defense rests…
    steveolenski´s last blog post ..A leader in the making


  1. […] shared their thoughts about the article and Power on their own blogs…Lisa believed that it can depend on which lens you view power through, and Steve’s video says it all…Then tonight, the flood gates opened and worlds collided […]

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