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Conspiracy is a book that the reader picks up believing it to be one thing, changes into something else while reading, and then turns into something unexpectedly different at its conclusion.
Subtitled; Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, Conspiracy tells the story of the gossip and snark site Gawker’s outing of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel as gay. This sets in motion a conspiracy with Theil using his vast resources to try and find a way take Gawker down. Or at least clip the site’s wings.

The vehicle that the conspirators ultimately settle on is Gawker’s publication of parts of a sex tape of wrestling star Hulk Hogan that was made without Hogan’s consent. With Thiel footing the bill, Hogan can undertake a long and protracted campaign, encompassing multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions.

Thiel’s motivations are at the heart of the book. Is he out for revenge? Does he feel that a site such as Gawker should be allowed to get away with pushing freedom of speech deep into the territory of invasion of privacy? The book explores these issues in depth, and the nature of conspiracies. This is not, however, a thesis on conspiracy theories. It is rather an exploration of what it takes to construct, and maintain, a conspiracy. It is also a behind the scenes look at how the rich and powerful (all the characters in this tale are rich and powerful by conventional standards) go to war with each other.

Where Conspiracy sets itself apart is its examination of the aftermath of the Hogan vs. Gawker lawsuit and its effect on both the conspirators and the media. Mr. Holiday also uses the case, and Thiel’s motivations, to explore the culture wars and society’s relationship with the media.

Conspiracy is an entertaining and intelligent book. The constant focus on the nature of conspiracy can get tiresome, but this a tale that is rarely told and it reveals a lot about us as a society and the use, and the potential use, of power in the business world. It is a tale that has implications far beyond its Silicon Valley and Hollywood roots.


The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Loose Influence, is a slim but insightful book on the relationship between power, the powerful, powerlessness and the powerless. “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place”, which is from the introduction, nicely sums up the premise.

The author, who uses his own experimental data and a number of graphics, makes a solid case for the phenomenon that others have labeled, incorrectly, as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Separating the Power Paradox into 20 ‘Power Principles, which are too extensive to list here, Dr. Keltner neatly lays out why leaders become leaders, and why they can go off the rails.
What is missing from the book, is historical perspective. It is filled with experimental data, but real world examples from business, or politics, would make for a more compelling case. One of the reasons that I appreciate the argument made in the book so much is due to the insights of Nassir Ghaemi in his excellent: A First Rate Madness which I reviewed here and is full (in retrospect) of historical examples of the Power Paradox in action.

From my own experience, I have seen the Power Paradox at work in supervisors and in myself. Terminology is, of course, a problem. I have always accepted that “power” means the control that your job, or position, grants you; whereas the ability to lead is granted through “authority.” Authority is given by a group. The Power Paradox lumps these both together, though it does make use of “empowered” but because of the larger framework of the “principles” this actually works. The definition of power and authority, may be too simple for such a complex subject, particularly when dealt with in such detail as here with “The Power Principle,”

The book becomes particularly interesting, and potentially controversial, when Dr. Keltner deals with gossip. Long considered a symptom of a potentially hostile work environment, Dr. Keltner makes the argument that gossip is how strong groups self-regulate and expose the “reputations of the selfish and the Machiavellian.” The author does recognize that gossip can be extremely harmful, particularly when it is abused by the powerful; however, the case for it not being the cardinal sin that we have long believed it to be – particularly if your goal is to have high functioning groups – is pretty solid.

Annoyingly for a book written by an academic, but probably a sop to writing a pop-science book, the footnotes are exiled to the end of the book, making following a path of enquiry more complex than it really needs to be, but this is a small criticism of a great leadership book. It is particularly useful for those who have been in leadership positions for a while. There are lots of books out there on how to become a leader, create functional teams, and even dealing with powerlessness; however, it is rare to find a book that addresses the dysfunction of leaders who get used to their positions, and why things can go awry.
For leaders, you need the book before you really need it, otherwise you will not stay a leader for long.

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