The Power Broker: How Power and Personality Interplay

August 4, 2007 — 8 Comments

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Last week I finished The Power Broker by Robert Caro, an enormous tome on the effects of power, vision and drive. It took me 15 days to do all 1,165 pages of the hardcover monstrosity that chronicled the rise of Robert Moses. You’ve probably never heard of Robert (I hadn’t), because his philosophy was very similar to Boyd’s–that you can get a lot done if you let others take the credit. Like Boyd, you might not know him but you know of him. Moses built Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, Jones Beach, the United Nations headquarters in New York, the 1964 World’s Fair, Jones Beach, the Henry Hudson Parkway–fuck, he literally invented parkway–the Central Park Zoo, Bryant Park, the Triborough Bridge and just about every other major modern construction project in New York city with the exception of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Subway.

He was the “Master Builder” and as the book describes him, his achievements are on the level not of any Roman emperor but of Rome, and not so much of any generation but of entire civilizations. He had more power, more money, more tangible, physical property to his name than just about anyone…ever. His vision was majestic, inspiring and immortal. He turned swampland into world powerhouses and slums into pristine parks–congested streets into towering highways. As an unelected, untrained and salaryless public servant he molded perhaps the greatest city in the history of the world to his view. The public couldn’t stop him, the mayor couldn’t stop him, the governor couldn’t stop him, and only once could the President of the United States stop him.

But ultimately, you know where the cliche must take us. Robert Moses was an asshole. His vision, although appearing heartfelt, was simply an evolutionary tactic that gave him the means and justification for his drive for power. He was different, but not that different. He may have had more brain, more drive, more strategy than other men but he did not have more compassion. And that was his undoing.

“For once Moses came into possession of power, it began to perform its harsh alchemy on his character, altering its contours, eating away at some traits, allowing others to enlarge. The potential had always been there, like a darker shadow on the edge of the bright gold of his idealism. With each small increase in the amount of power he possessed, the dark element in his nature loomed larger.”

It is an absolutely fascinating book–both from a strategy and human-study perspective. You MUST read it. (I’ll even link it again) But if you don’t, I think a few of the themes of the book are worth looking at:

Above all else, You Cannot Lose Touch. Moses took to power because he understood the complexities of his industry. He’d studied more, read more, knew more than anyone else. In fact, he regularly capitalized on the fact that funding goes to the person with the plans right now as opposed to a vague vision for tomorrow. But what served him well on the rise was forgotten. The man who designed ALL of NY’s highways didn’t even know how to drive. He’d never even been in a traffic jam. He didn’t visit the neighborhoods he was renovating, nor did he listen to the emissaries who had. As Caro the author writes “The mind was brilliant, but even a brilliant mind is only as good as the material–the input–fed into it. Bob Moses climbed so high on his own ego, had become so hidebound in his own arbitrariness, that he had removed himself almost entirely from reality and had insulated himself within his own individuality.” His problem was simply that he lost the grasp of the world that had delivered him his power.

Which is something that applies not just to government but to nearly every other part of life. It’s a mantra that Hollywood has forgotten, universities have never really had, and many other businesses have but a tenuous hold on. If it happens to me–well then, I deserve every bit of the fall–because I read it and understood it here at 20.

Resting too much is an inefficiency, but not resting at all is the greatest inefficiency. Moses never stopped. Ever. And it was probably the biggest contributer to his downfall. He rose to power because he had a vision and a reason. But when the power came he lost it–and the power eventually followed. As the author put it: ““Robert Moses had never, since he has first come to power, allowed himself any time for reflection, for thought. Reflection, thought, is in a sense no more than the putting to use of a mind, and the unique instrument that was Robert Moses’ mind could conceive wonders when it was put to work that way.”

“Why?” was not a question often asked by Robert Moses. It is no wonder then that the results of his life look like a cocktail of addiction, rage and lust. How can a direction or purpose of been the result when it was never part of the process? Humans–like all things–are limited by the law of diminishing returns. Impetuousness becomes stupidity when there is no rest between battles, and snap judgments becoming increasingly less accurate when their results are never looked at empirically. It was the unexamined life that Socrates so adamantly warned against. To think that an extra hour in the office is more important than half of that spent in reflection is the mind of a menial labored and not a leader.

You can find power anywhere. For Moses it was in Parks. He found that no one was against parks, and thus their controller would largely go unchallenged. It is the same in all things. Where there is the lowest demand, you will find the lowest prices. You can kill yourself in the high cost, low margins game of politics, military or Law or you can find the uncontested niche and turn it into your domain. So why follow the masses and fight the traffic, when you can carve your own path and watch as they have to turn around and come to you? Does this sound familiar?

It’s easier to keep something going than to start something new. I’ve written about this before, and it is the way that almost all people govern their lives. Moses’ most successful tactic was grossly underestimating the cost of a project in order to get funding and then laying its foundation. Politicians, who answer to the people, cannot afford to spend money without results and thus they were obligated to fund it until completion. It may not be the most ethical approach but all the “doers” will tell you that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. If you can play loose with fact to get approval, you’ll find that they’ll be more likely to continue yours then to start something new. Remember, as Moses did, that this is bet on your own predictions and you better be confident of a payoff.

Use a table instead of a desk. I am going to do a full entry on this because I liked the advice so much.

This book is something you just have to read. I think you’ll find a renewed faith in the 48 Laws after you finish. It might be long (and way too heavy to carry around) but it’s worth it. But more than that, it is a confirmation of the necessity of the search for meaning. Ambition is an admirable thing, but does it trump self-discipline and self-respect? It’s like that hole that Doc Holliday talks about in Tombstone–you’ll never be able to steal, kill or hurt enough to fill what is left in their absence. Like I was talking about earlier in the week, what does this mention of Moses even mean? Does it alleviate the self-loathing and hatred that permeated his existence? Does the grudging respect and physical immortality make up for the lives he ruined and the people he hurt? These are just words, those buildings are just concrete and steel–none of it, NOTHING trumps being a good person. And Moses might be rare in that he could DO, but rarer still is the man who can DO and BE. But he never tried.

(If you want to read the rest of the quotes, they are here)

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

8 responses to The Power Broker: How Power and Personality Interplay

  1. My mom has this book in her bookcase. She read like 50 pages of it and decided she hated Robert Moses as a person and didn’t want to read anymore about him.

    Oddly enough, she enjoys reading James Michener books.

    The table idea is something I’ve been doing for a couple years now. An eight foot by two and a half foot table with folding legs is a fantastic surface that actually helps you to get things done.

    Why did you leave out Moses’ overt racism? Can of worms?

  2. MOST of America was racist at the time, and even though Moses was particularly bad, I felt like the author brushed over that. He rose to power in like 1928–I promise you he wasn’t the only rich New Yorker who hated minorities.

    But like I said, all of his accomplishments are tarnished by the fact that he was a bad person…and it wouldn’t have been that hard to go the other way.

    Did you read it?

  3. Maybe it’s hard for you to see, as a good person, to see that a transformation from a bad person to a good person is incredibly difficult.

    I wonder what Tucker thinks about this.

  4. Got through the first fifty pages yesterday night. I’ll be finished in four or five days.

    From what I’ve read so far, I do not think Robert Moses would ever have changed from a “bad person” to a “good one”.

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