Working Life: Looking out for Number Two

It's a jungle out there, and your boss has probably already noticed that. Time to learn how to reverse the order
The starting point for 'The 48 Laws of Power', a new book by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers, is the Machiavellian line: "Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good". If that puts you in mind, rather sadly, of your own career, then perhaps it's time to study more closely the rules of the jungle. 'The Laws' does just that. A guide to all manner of devious and tactical schemes, it sets out to shine a torch into all the murky corridors of power and, in the process, teach you how to cheat, dissemble, feign, fight and advance your cause in the modern world. But the authors give a stern warning to take it all very seriously. So, for those of you who are not at the top and feeling ruthless, read on for Law Number 1: Never outshine your master.


Everyone has insecurities. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity. This is to be expected. You cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others. With those above you, however, you must take a different approach. When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that life has changed much since the days of Louis XIV and the Medicis. Those who attain high standing in life are like kings and queens. They want to feel secure in their positions, and superior to those around them in intelligence, wit and charm. It is a deadly but common misperception to believe that by displaying and vaunting your gifts and talents, you are winning the master's affection. He may feign appreciation, but at his first opportunity he will replace you with someone less intelligent, less attractive, less threatening, just as Louis XIV replaced the sparkling Fouquet with the bland Colbert. And as with Louis, he will not admit the truth, but will find an excuse to rid himself of your presence.

This Law involves two rules that you must realise. First you can inadvertently outshine a master simply by being yourself. There are masters who are more insecure than others, monstrously insecure; you may naturally outshine them by your charm and grace.

No one had more natural talents than Astorre Manfredi, prince of Faenza. The most handsome of all the young princes of Italy, he captivated his subjects with his generosity and open spirit. In the year 1500, Cesare Borgia laid siege to Faenza. When the city surrendered, the citizens expected the worst from the cruel Borgia, who, however, decided to spare the town. He simply occupied its fortress, executed none of its citizens, and allowed Prince Manfredi, 18 at the time, to remain with his court, in complete freedom.

A few weeks later, though, soldiers hauled Astorre Manfredi away to a Roman prison. A year after that, his body was fished out of the River Tiber, a stone tied around his neck. Borgia justified the horrible deed with some sort of trumped-up charge of treason and conspiracy, but the real problem was that he was notoriously vain and insecure. The young man was outshining him without even trying. The lesson is simple: if you cannot help being charming and superior, you must learn to avoid such monsters of vanity. Either that, or find a way to route your good qualities when in the company of a Cesare Borgia.

Second, never imagine that because the master loves you, you can do anything you want. Entire books could be written about favourites who fell out of favour by taking their status for granted, for daring to outshine. In late 16th-century Japan, the favourite of Emperor Hideyoshi was a man called Sen no Rikyu. He was one of Hideyoshi's most trusted advisers, had his own apartment in the palace, and was honoured throughout Japan. Yet in 1591, Hideyoshi had him arrested and sentenced to death. Rikyu took his own life instead.

It seems that Rikyu, former peasant and later court favourite, had had a wooden statue made of himself wearing sandals (a sign of nobility) and posing loftily. He had had this statue placed in the most important temple inside the palace gates, in clear sight of the royalty who often would pass by. To Hideyoshi this signified that Rikyu had no sense of limits. He had forgotten that his position depended on the emperor, and had come to believe that he had earned it on his own.

This was an unforgivable miscalculation of his own importance and he paid for it with his life. Remember the following: never take your position for granted and never let any favours you receive go to your head.

Knowing the dangers of outshining your master, you can turn this Law to your advantage. First you must flatter and puff up your master. Overt flattery can be effective but has its limits; it is too direct and obvious, and looks bad to other courtiers. Discreet flattery is much more powerful. If you are more intelligent than your master, for example, seem the opposite. Make him appear more intelligent than you. Act naive. Make it seem that you need his expertise. Commit harmless mistakes that will not hurt you in the long run but will give you the chance to ask for his help. Masters adore such requests. A master who cannot bestow on you the gifts of his experience may direct rancour and ill will at you instead.

If your ideas are more creative than your master's, ascribe them to him, in as public a manner as possible. Make it clear that your advice is merely an echo of his advice.

If you surpass your master in wit, it is okay to play the role of the court jester, but do not make him appear cold and surly by comparison. Tone down your humour if necessary, and find ways to make him seem the dispenser of amusement and good cheer. If you are naturally more sociable and generous than your master, be careful not to be the cloud that blocks his radiance from others. He must appear as the sun around which everyone revolves, radiating power and brilliance, the centre of attention. If you are thrust into the position of entertaining him, a display of your limited means may win you his sympathy. Any attempt to impress him with your grace and generosity can prove fatal. Learn from Fouquet or pay the price.

In all of these cases it is not a weakness to disguise your strengths if in the end they lead to power. By letting others outshine you, you remain in control, instead of being a victim of their insecurity. This will all come in handy the day you decide to rise above your inferior status. If, like Galileo, you can make your master shine even more in the eyes of others, then you are a godsend and you will be instantly promoted.


Avoid outshining the master. All superiority is odious, but the superiority of a subject over his prince is not only stupid, it is fatal. This is a lesson that the stars in the sky teach us: they may be related to the sun, and just as brilliant, but they never appear in her company. (Baltasar Gracian, 1601-1658)


You cannot worry about upsetting every person; you must be selectively cruel. If your superior is a falling star, there is nothing to fear from outshining him. Do not be merciful; your master had no such scruples in his cold-blooded climb to the top. Gauge his strength. If he is weak, discreetly hasten his downfall. Outcharm, outsmart him at key moments. If he is very weak and ready to fall, let nature take its course. Do not risk outshining a feeble superior; it might appear spiteful. But if your master is firm, yet you know yourself to be the more capable, bide your time. It is the natural course of things that power eventually fades and weakens. Your master will fall some day, and if you play it right, you will outlive and someday outshine him.

'The 48 Laws of Power', on sale now, is published by Profile. Enquiries 0171 404 3001