The book: Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't, by Jeffrey Pfeffer; Harper Business; September 2010.

The big idea: Powerful people can improve lives and organizations. Sadly, power isn't won with hard work and noble intentions. In order to gain, wield, and protect it, the ambitious must hone their reputations and their demeanor.

The backstory: Pfeffer, a professor of management at Stanford, teaches a class called Paths to Power, with case studies including Henry Kissinger's and Keith Ferrazzi's.

Nice guys finish last: The author navigates a course between Machiavelli and Pollyanna. He rejects ruthless scheming but argues that following one's inner compass won't cut it.

Watch your back: Power offers a glimpse into the black waters of ambition churning below. How many members of your executive team think they could do the CEO job better than you?

If you read nothing else: The chapter "Acting and Speaking With Power" will help you get comfortable with challenging assumptions and lingering on the pause.

Rigor rating: 8 (1=Who Moved My Cheese?; 10=Good to Great).Pfeffer peppers the book with first-name-only examples. But most cases are well documented, and he draws on a wealth of social-science and psychology research, including some of his own.