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We need to rethink power

Thursday 17 June 2021

Old ideas of top-down and bottom-up are no longer fit for purpose. The time has come (again) for an even older idea: interdependence


My new book is called The Power of Giving Away Power.

I mention this because, during my work in diplomacy, business and politics, I used to go out of my way to avoid using the word “power”. So it’s a little strange that it appears twice in the book’s title.

At some level, I think we all have a problem with power. Look around.

We know what we don’t like. We don’t like to be at the mercy of bosses, bullies or big institutions. In other words, we don’t like dependency.

So we’ve worked hard to achieve greater independence. The problem, though, is that we’re coming to realise the limits of independence: it’s making us lonely, anxious, and even a little paranoid of each other.

So my book is about an alternative to dependence and independence. It’s the story of an idea whose time has come – again.

I discovered that there are some amazing leaders – many whom we’ve never heard of – who have used this idea to build some of the most consequential organisations and innovations the world has ever seen.

For these leaders, power isn’t something that should be lorded over others. Nor should it be hoarded to oneself. It isn’t even something to be divvied up and shared.

For them, power isn’t a scarce resource like something you mine. No, power is something you make – with other people.

And it all starts with giving it away.

The Pyramid Trap

We’ve all gotten the memo that top-down leadership isn’t working. No more barking down orders from the top of the pyramid, right?

So it’s not surprising that many of us have turned to what we think is the opposite: bottom-up.

And it does feel good at first, but here’s the thing: bottom-up is no better. After all, a bottom-up perspective forces you into one of only two choices: you are either looking at those around you as beneath you, or you’re seeing yourself as beneath someone else.

In either case, we are reinforcing the exact same pyramid shape we’d hoped to escape. It’s hierarchy by a different name.

The reason we can’t seem to escape the pyramid – the world of up or down, in or out, ranking and rating and sorting and sifting – is because it’s not just “out there” in our organisations. It’s inside us. It has infiltrated how we see almost everything.  

Here’s a good test to see it for yourself. If you ask a group of ten people “What’s the opposite of winning?” they all say, “Losing.”

Then if you ask the more interesting question of “What’s the opposite of winning and losing?” nine out of ten of us will say something like, “I don’t know, sitting it out, not playing.”

One in ten of us says “Playing,” or being or loving or laughing or learning or any of the other things we enjoy every day that aren’t strictly winning and losing. The things we value most in life – marriage, careers, friendship, parenting – these are things you cannot win.

And when the other nine out of ten hear this answer – and this is the encouraging part – they say, “Oh yeah, yeah right!”

So the good news is that we can find our way out of the pyramid trap. And once we do, we can start to see the alternative…

The Lost Constellation

Back on 4 July 1776, there were two declarations – not one – made in Philadelphia. Of course, there was the famous Declaration of Independence. But the founders also that day declared, like any startup anywhere, “We need a logo” – something to replace the dreaded symbol of King George.

It was called the Great Seal of the United States.

As it turned out, it took longer to design the logo than it did to win the war.

They did settle on a few things early: a design for the backside of the seal; an American eagle, for the frontside, with a shield; and also a motto – E Pluribus Unum (from many, one).

But the front was still missing an important element (there was a formula for these things back then). They needed what was called a “crest” – a symbol that was supposed to be the essence of the whole thing.

After three failed committees over seven years, they finally chose the symbol for the crest. It was 13 stars of different sizes in an asymmetrical pattern, with beams of light emanating outwards. They called it the “radiant constellation”.

It symbolised for them the animating idea of this new country: independent bodies freely choosing to behave in concert to accomplish something bigger, more useful, more powerful than each could alone. One could stand out on one’s own – a star – but at the same time be part of a larger unit – a constellation.

This constellation pointed the way to something harder and much more meaningful than simple independence: interdependence. A way to achieve unity without demanding uniformity. A way to get the energy from diversity without succumbing to division. (This was the ideal, of course. Its practice was full of brutal hypocrisy, as we know.)

Now, remember, this great seal had two sides. On the back, they put an unfinished pyramid with that funny little floating pyramid on top with the all-seeing eye. That symbolised consolidated power. To be sure, that kind of power had its place – the back. (You can see both side by side on the back of a US one dollar bill today.)

Constellation comes first. And the pyramid is available when needed.

Then, somewhere along the way, this got flipped. In fact, we’ve nearly lost the constellation all together.

Yet it’s this old pattern – with its distinct habits of seeing, thinking, feeling and behaving – that was America’s best idea.

“From many, one” was not meant to mean “From many bricks one pyramid”. How depressing would that be?

It means “From many stars, one constellation”. Where fitting-in never means losing your identity. And being a one-of-a-kind individual doesn’t mean going it alone.

In a constellation you can stand out and fit in.

Don’t compromise

Back in 2003, the Harvard Business Review asked the top 200 leadership gurus across the world, “Who was your guru?” And when they published the list of the gurus’ gurus, number one was the consultant Peter Drucker.

Drucker, near the end of his life, revealed that he too had a guru – the gurus’ guru’s guru, if you will. She was Mary Parker Follett, born in 1868 outside of Boston, died in 1933.

Follett also lived in a bitterly divided time, with political, social and economic division everywhere she looked. There were raging debates about a minimum wage, immigration, and the rising power of big business, as well as fear of government regulation.

Follet’s great insight was that we could start to heal those big divisions by thinking quite small. The power of interdependence (what I call constellation power) could be rekindled, she thought, by focusing on small things – how people engaged with one another in small groups around a table. Power could be made in every single meeting we go to. 

After 25 years on the front lines of social work, and serving on scores of civic subcommittees, she had a PhD in meetings. She knew (like we do) how dreadful meetings could be. And also – potentially – how powerful.

She explained that there are four possible outcomes for any meeting that we have, but only one is worthwhile.

Bad outcome #1: win. You go into the meeting to make your idea prevail over others. But that means everyone else loses. Why even have them at the meeting?

Bad outcome #2: acquiesce. You say, “Oh, well, John seems super fired up and pushy. It’s not worth the fight.” No, that’s not okay either, because you’ve denied the group of a unique perspective they don’t have – yours.

Now for the hard one. Bad outcome #3: compromise. For Follett, that was just the sum of partial wins and losses. You only got part of what you wanted and, this is the important bit, you got nothing more than that. It misses the whole idea of what meetings are for, which is the good outcome.

The fourth possibility, and only worthwhile one, is co-creation. Making something together. That should be the aspiration of every meeting. We all know that magic feeling: you contribute a smart part initially, and then the combined bigger creation at the end is forever part of you. Your identity isn’t diminished in the process. You and everyone else are equally enhanced.

To make it work, each participant needs to come to the table with three expectations:

  • You should expect to need others.
  • You should expect to be needed.
  • You should expect to be changed.

This third expectation is critical. Follet reminds us that, yes, you need to bring your full self to each meeting (no one else can), but that isn’t enough: you have a reciprocal obligation to leave that meeting just a little bit different from how you came in. That way, when you go to your next meeting, you and everyone else is different. 

That’s how you can make power – right away, at your next meeting.

Stop helping

Famously, Adam Smith said (and I’m paraphrasing): “We do not rely on the benevolence of the butcher, the baker or the brewer to get our dinner.” The implication being that these characters aren’t being selfless every day on our behalf so that we get what we need.

We have interpreted that to mean that if it’s not selflessness, it must be selfishness. And if you do enough isolated acts of selfishness, it adds up to something really good, the invisible hand and all that… and you get your dinner.

Well, not necessarily. There’s an alternative to both selflessness and selfishness, and it is what we need more of right now. 

I can best sum it up with a story I learned from a remarkable leader in a rainforest preservation, named Lynne Twist.

She talked about her gruelling four-day trek to the headwaters of the Amazon to meet with a tribal chief whose people are threatened by deforestation. She wanted to see if there was a way for her organisation to help.

She sat down with the chief and explained why she was there and why this work is her life’s calling.

And the chief, through a translator, listened respectfully. And then he said back to Lynn: “I think I understand. If you’re here to help, please leave.”

“Oh, no!” she thinks. “I’ve come all this way… I blew it…”

But then he continued: “But… if you’re here because you think your liberation is inexorably tied up with our liberation, well then sit, stay, let’s see if we can work together.”

I love that story because it points us to an alternative to this trap of selfishness and selflessness. This is a third option.

And not some middle-of-the-road, mushy compromise between the two.

It is an entirely different thing. It’s mutual liberation, and a lot of potential power resides there.

Let me come at it another way. Imagine two cars in a parking lot. The game is: which is the Democrat’s car and which is the Republican’s? They each have one bumper sticker only with just one word on it. Car #1’s bumper sticker says “Freedom”. Car #2’s says “Together”.

Everyone gets the right answer.

The freedom instinct, taken to its logical extreme, is freedom from things: leave me alone… pure independence…

The together instinct, to its logical extreme, is solidarity: individual identity is absorbed by and lost in the collective.

But what we really want, and what we really need, isn’t freedom-from. Nor is it total togetherness.

What we want and what we need is “freedom together”. Making freedom through and with one another. That’s what Lynne Twist learned in the rainforest.

And what, for that matter, Mary Parker Follett said we should put into practice at our next Monday morning meeting.

Leadership is a joke

A great stand-up comedian once told me that, when he tries out new jokes, he’s happy if three in ten land. I thought that was pretty interesting, but then he said something else.

“You know, Matthew, jokes are strange things. If you put on a play and no one claps, it’s still a play. If you sing a song and nobody likes, it it’s still a song. But if you tell a joke and nobody laughs, it’s not a joke at all. It’s just a sentence.”

To me, that was profound. A joke isn’t just the delivery of the words. It’s the connection – a completed circuit. The comedian does his or her part, the audience does theirs. And together they make something new. It’s no longer just you and me. It’s us. Engaged. Otherwise, it’s just a sentence.

It’s the same with leadership. It has to connect and create something new with other people. Otherwise it’s just sentences. Good leadership should be like a good joke.

We say that great leaders light up a room. That should be because they have made the connections so that everyone else in the room’s one light is turned on. But that’s not what we imagine. We think of the great glowing leader.

We pass along the same misleading notion about how ideas work.

If you ask someone to quickly doodle one image that comes in their head when I say the word “idea,” nearly everyone sketches the exact same thing. And if you do a Google images search, thousands of versions of that same picture pop up, too: A yellow incandescent lightbulb strangely floating in space; disconnected from anything and everything, yet aglow, with little lines emanating out to prove it.  

If you write the word “idea” in a text message, your smartphone will suggest the lightbulb emoji. It’s a visual cliché we all carry around. But it’s untrue and it’s unhelpful.  

It’s so representative of our instinct to isolate; to factor out our interdependence; to think we can do things all by ourselves.

An idea is at best an unlit lightbulb. To produce light, an idea needs the same two additional things as a real-life lightbulb: energy and a connection.

People need the same things, too. And that’s how leaders can light up a room in the right way.

Matthew Barzun was US Ambassador to Sweden and then the UK. He is the chairman and co-founder of Tortoise. You can buy his book, The Power of Giving Away Power here.

Photograph by Charlie Clift for Tortoise