You want to be very careful who you challenge. If the other person can hurt you and you can't hurt him, you will lose. Robert Moses found this out the hard way when he challenged Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York, in 1962 and lost. It ended the career of one of the most powerful man in New York state and New York City.
Robert Moses, "master builder" of New York during the mid-20th century, was one of the most powerful man in New York, as explained in Robert Caro's great book about him titled, "The Power Broker." Moses had his way for close to forty years with the past mayors and governors. The ploy that he used so successfully was to submit his resignation when he could not get what he wanted. As Caro explains that "the threat to resign---his ultimate ultimatum---had brought them all to heel." When Nelson Rockefeller became the Governor of New York, it did not work. As Caro adds that "the man in the Executive Chamber now was not a man who would be willing to heel."
Nelson Rockefeller was rich, powerful, political, builder, clever, ambitious and ruthless. Sooner or later Moses and Rockefeller were going to have a confrontation as there was no room for two, even in a large state like New York and a big city like New York City. This was inevitable since Rockefeller was going to tread into the turf that Moses controlled; Moses had complete control over many organizations that were in charge of public projects like parks, roads, bridges, etc.
In the beginning, Rockefeller left Moses alone so Moses saw no threat posed by Rockefeller. In addition, Moses also felt that he had developed a good relationships with the Rockefellers over the years so he saw no imminent threat. But slowly, Rockefeller started treading into Moses' turf and soon they would come to a collision.
Rockefeller and others felt that Moses had too much power as he held too many positions in charge of public projects in New York and New York City. Rockefeller grabbed an early narrative that there should be an "orderly transition" to have his men occupy some of the positions that Moses controlled to realize his vision for new projects. Rockefeller was right in a sense since Moses was getting old and showed no inclination in giving up any of the positions he held.
The one thing Rockefeller had as a trump card over Moses was providing extension to Moses to continue in his positions since Moses was over the retirement age of sixty-five and needed an extension from the Governor to continue. Moses hated having to go through this every year since he felt he could do the job for a long time even though he was aging and having difficulty hearing (but refused to wear a hearing aid). Previous governors signed the papers unconditionally to extend his term for another year. Nelson Rockefeller was not going to do this without getting something back in return from Moses.
Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 had gotten everything he wanted in his meeting with Richard Nixon that I write about in my blog titled, "How To Interview Effectively On Comapay's Turf." Once again, Rockefeller used the same technique and invited Robert Moses to his brownstone in New York City for a meeting. During the meeting Rockefeller wanted to Moses to give up his position as Chairman of State Council of Parks so that Rockefeller's brother Laurance could replace him and in return Rockefeller would extend Moses' term as the presidency of the Long Island State Park Commission. Moses was not willing to give up any of his positions.
Moses miscalculated and thought that Rockefeller would fall for his true and tested ploy of offering his resignation from all the leadership positions he held. Rockefeller also miscalculated in how Moses would react since I believe he thought that Moses would act rationally and see Rockefeller's way. Rockefeller tried calling Moses, but Moses would not return his call since he misinterpreted Rockefller calling as a sign that he had won yet again. Instead of getting on the phone, Moses was looking for a total surrender and sent his resignation letter from all the leadership positions. This time the gamble failed as Moses pushed the wrong person as Rockefeller accepted Moses resignation and thus ended Moses' power.
Moses thought there would be a major outcry by newspaper editors and politicians and that would force Rockefeller to reconsider, but again he miscalculated since nothing happened besides some perfunctory statements from his cronies People and newspapers realized that Rockefeller had won and Moses was out.
To defeat a man like Moses required a combination of many things. Moses used to "feast" on politicians but when Rockefeller had become Governor, Moses had lost his juice as he did not have the public and media support that he once enjoyed. Though weakened, Moses was still formidable and required someone as ruthless, if not more, like Rockefeller to finally defeat him. Rockefeller could do it because he had too many advantages and was not shy in using them to win.
- Wealth -- Rockefeller was a very rich man (his family at that time was worth over $6 billion).
- Powerful -- Rockefeller had interests in several industries in both US and abroad that gave him tremendous power and made him very well connected to other powerful people.
- Political -- Rockefeller knew how to wield political power; he showed this in 1960 when he got Nixon to accept his terms in return not engage a floor fight at the 1960 Republican National Convention in Chicago
- Vision -- Rockefeller had a vision like Moses to build parks and mass transportation his way.
- Clever -- Rockefeller could read men and knew how to get what he wanted without being abrasive. He masterfully exploited the irrationality of Robert Moses.
- Arrogant -- Rockefeller played to win and always got his way and thought he was right if he had the high ground, such as civil rights.
- Smart -- Rockefeller knew that money was power in politics so like Moses he knew how to debt finance to start public projects that employed a lot of people and garnered public support.
- Independent -- Rockefeller was not beholden to anyone which made him very dangerous and unpredictable.
- Ruthless -- Rockefeller played the game to win and used all his weapons at his disposal and had engendered the fear factor
- Strategy -- Rockefeller knew what he had to do to win
- Age -- Rockefeller was in his prime whereas Moses was past 70 and his public and media support had eroded; money was not going to make a difference against Rockefeller.
Lessons from Moses vs. Rockefeller
Moses' undoing at the end was that he just did not know when to give up power and thus developed blind spots. He was too arrogant to give up anything and thus ended up losing everything in a humiliating manner. Moses did not make any changes in how he played the game and Rockefeller was too clever not to exploit that and defeat him.
What happened to Moses can easily happen to you at work when you are trying to challenge someone. If you are planning to challenge someone, make sure you are smarter, connected, political, and ruthless. If you are not, you will lose. No one likes to give up power voluntarily; you have to take it by outwitting them. You only want to make your move when you know you can take it.
At the end, outcome of any power game comes down to something very fundamental: If you can't hurt the other person more than he can hurt you, it is very difficult to win.
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