What’s it about?
The Power of Giving Away Power (2021) explains how leaders, organizations, and businesses can claim power by giving it away. By replacing traditional ideas of hierarchy with a mindset focused on constellations, we can build flexible networks that allow us to get big things done better.
About the author:
Matthew Barzun is a businessman, political fundraiser, and former US diplomat to Sweden and Great Britain. He started his career working as a business executive for the media company CNET Networks. During Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, he established the small-dollar fundraising events that helped win the election.
The United States was founded as a constellation, but has since adopted the power pyramid:
On July 4th, 1776, the founding fathers sensed something was missing as they signed the Declaration of Independence. They had just formally declared their new country’s independence. However, they now lacked a suitable logo. It wasn’t called a logo, of course – a “Great Seal.” It would be a visual representation of all that the United States stood for: a constellation of 13 colonies, each with its own unique perspective, uniting as one nation.
Charles Thomson, a lesser-known politician, was tasked with managing its design. First, he solicited ideas from his colleagues Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Thomson, on the other hand, was displeased with the outcomes. To modify the ideas, he organized various committees and hired a slew of consultants. Each subsequent team ended up contributing to the design until everyone agreed.
The United States Congress finally accepted the design of the Great Seal of the United States six years later, on June 20th, 1782. A bald eagle, a grouping of 13 stars signifying the 13 colonies, and the motto “E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of many, one” – were prominently displayed on the flag. The design was inspired by how the United States and the Seal were formed: by several independent actors who brought disparate ideas together to achieve a common objective.
This constellation attitude resembles the founding spirit of the United States. When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville entered the country in the early 1800s, he was captivated by the fact that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite.”
The Great Seal, on the other hand, has two sides. On the other one, a pyramid is depicted with a different motto: “Novus Ordo Seclorum” – “new order of the ages.”
This site was created in tandem with the first. But it wasn’t used again until the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt discovered it. The pyramid symbolized a New America for FDR. It symbolized stability, authority, and power consolidation — even if it was the hierarchical rule.
FDR wanted the pyramid next to the constellation logo on the new one-dollar bill. He also suggested the design team: start with the pyramid.
We need to return to a Constellation thinking instead of a Pyramid structure:
What’s the distinction between a constellation and a pyramid?
Power is concentrated at the top of a pyramid. People are arranged in hierarchical order based on their functions, and they are expected to deliver those functions. All significant choices are made by the top leaders, who work backward from a target destination. This removes some of the unsettling unpredictability that comes with running a company or organization. At all times, everyone knows what they should do. However, it excludes flexibility, new ideas, and spontaneous synergy.
Today’s society has entirely accepted the pyramid mentality. It’s how we try to protect ourselves from the unknown by adhering to rigid hierarchies. We’ve persuaded ourselves that leading entails a single powerful person enforcing choices. And, almost entirely, companies reward individual performance rather than collective power.
While the pyramid attitude dominates our lives, many of us long for a new approach that allows more collaboration and creativity. But there was a time when we did things differently.
Power is divided over a constantly developing network in a constellation. People labor separately but together toward a common purpose, which they help shape. Leaders are still present – they don’t, however, hoard power at the top. Instead, they decide to share it. This enables constellations to accomplish big goals through a combination of small efforts.
Consider Wikipedia as an example. Encyclopedias used to be 24-volume books, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, sat on shelves worldwide collecting dust. But then came the internet, and Microsoft replaced them all with Encarta, a new digital encyclopedia. But even Encarta has fallen out of favor. This is because Encarta followed the same principles as the Encyclopedia Britannica. The scholars who wrote the articles had the power at the top. Articles took a long time to edit and incorporate changes.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, intended to do things the same way. His colleague Larry Sanger, on the other hand, had a different concept. Wiki was a new technology that allowed individuals to collaborate on writing and editing material. Why not let everyone offer their expertise and create a community where people may proofread each other’s work? That’s how Wikipedia came to be. In the English language alone, it now includes over 6 million entries. It was a constellation mindset that created the world’s largest knowledge platform.
Collaborative leadership and integrative organizing were established by Mary Parker Follett:
Peter Drucker, who pioneered many of today’s concepts about leadership and management and died in 2005, was regarded as one of the world’s greatest business minds. Most people are unaware, however, that he had his own guru, Mary Parker Follett.
Mary was born in 1868 near Boston. She was captivated by the distribution of information and power in society even when she was in high school. She frequently found herself at the bottom of these power hierarchies as a woman. However, she was able to secure a unique Harvard scholarship. There, she studied from William James – “the father of psychology.” She researched how leadership functions in the House of Representatives for her senior thesis. Later, she was a crucial figure in developing community centers, eventually adopted by over 240 cities during her lifetime.
Mary developed her own opinions on these topics after spending a career studying organizational structures, establishing community centers, and giving presentations to business leaders. They continue to influence till this day.
To begin with, she was a firm believer in the potential of small groups. She felt that by bringing people together with open minds – such as in community centers – they might establish power-with rather than power-over.
Second, she discovered that the most successful leaders were not reliant on hierarchical dominance. Listening to, consolidating, and integrating other people’s thoughts made people feel like they were producing this power-with together.
In fact, she believed that the only ideal consequence of any discussion was integration. When people bring their thoughts together, they create something new, like Charles Thomson’s several committees, did when designing the Great Seal. On the other hand, meetings frequently result in one party’s submission, a hard-fought win, or a mutually unpleasant compromise.
This win-or-lose mindset prevents us from genuine achievements. Mary urged us not to go into a meeting expecting to impose our opinions on others. Instead, we should anticipate being needed by others, needing others, and changing.
Mary’s revolutionary views were all but lost after she died of cancer in 1933. The strict, hierarchical organizational model that she had questioned was required by the Great Depression and two World Wars. People are beginning to rediscover her wisdom.
We need to form unique bonds that promote interdependency:
Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the most widely read business books of our time. And half of the habits described in it are focused on interdependence, a concept that Mary pioneered.
Interdependence entails abandoning the win-lose mentality in favor of mutual connection and co-creation. It involves working both individually and collaboratively. In fact, the majority of our essential relationships are intertwined. There’s really no reason why our professional interactions should be treated any differently.
Data demonstrate the importance of interconnection. When Google looked at data from 180 companies to see what makes a strong team, they discovered that interdependence was the most important component.
What can we do to promote interdependence?
After WWII, Churchill pushed for a new, strengthened link of mutual help and collaboration between the US and the UK in his famous Iron Curtain speech. He believed that this was the best way to respond to Stalin’s communist revolution, which he saw as a threat. He referred to their connection as a special relationship.
The phrase is still used – sometimes mockingly – between the United States and the United Kingdom today. But there’s a key concept at the heart of it.
In everyday interactions, we treat each other according to our roles. Consider an employee’s professional relationship with his or her supervisor. In routine relationships, there are numerous routine transactions. When a boss, for example, requests his employee to do something, he will usually comply.
However, some transactions are special. Trying to incorporate these one-of-a-kind transactions into regular relationships causes aggravation. That is why we need special relationships. Special relationships foster interdependence. They form a kind of bond that allows for fruitful conflict.
We can establish a cycle of friction and mitigation that allows us to get great things done by combining everyday transactions and special relationships. It’s referred to as a bloom loop by the author. Think of the frictionless, choreographed family breakfast routine versus the friendly chaos of a family dinner.
As a diplomat, the author realized the value of these unique connections. And he discovered that the most effective method to create them is to pay close attention to other people’s thoughts and tales.
The energy of uncertainty can be harnessed by sharing power:
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 was the epitome of the constellation concept in action. The author was actively involved in the success of the campaign as a fundraising strategist. Actually, it was he who organized the low-cost fundraising events that were instrumental in making the difference. Obama’s campaign had raised $19 million by the time the election came around, compared to Hillary Clinton’s $16 million.
What was the deciding factor? The Clinton team was on the lookout for donors, and they got what they were looking for. They caught a few huge ones, but the majority escaped. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, was engaged in farming. Instead of concentrating their efforts on securing a few major campaign donors, they planted seeds. Thousands of small-dollar donors were mobilized, and these small-dollar donors mobilized more.
The Obama campaign grew into a full-fledged constellation after the fundraising strategy’s success. It gathered thousands of people from all walks of life to share their time, energy, and money to work toward a shared goal under its unofficial slogan of “respect, empower, include.”
As the election approached, campaign leaders had to make yet another critical decision. They granted decentralized access to the voter file to their most active volunteers. Volunteers may self-organize in this way to ensure that people actually vote. This had never been done before because prior presidents were afraid of losing valuable voter data. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, believed that the excitement of sharing power with volunteers would outweigh the risk of data theft.
It paid off: Obama’s campaign had an unheard-of negative flake rate on election day. This meant that 15 people showed up for every ten persons who said they would vote in one state.
Jane Jacobs outlines a similar form of organic growth in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Great cities, she noted, are like snowflakes, breaking out into smaller and smaller units. A great city is made up of great neighborhoods, which are made up of great blocks, and so on.
Patterns like these are known as self-similar or fractal in mathematics. Constellations, too, grow fractally. The beauty of fractal patterns is that they can evolve without a master plan because the foundation pattern always repeats itself. Constellations, unlike pyramids, flourish on unpredictability. In fact, it promotes their rise to power.
It’s not going to be easy to let go of the pyramid mindset, but the future requires it:
It’s difficult to unsee the pyramid structure of power’s inhumanity once you’ve seen how rigid, inflexible, and brutal it is.
With Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, the author has firsthand experienced that the sense of coming together to accomplish something enormous, which had driven the 2008 election, had largely faded. Obama’s re-election campaign centered on him as a person rather than the movement around him. And one phrase was added to the unofficial slogan “respect, empower, include.” It became “Respect, empower, include, win,”
The things that our society values are reflected in commencement speeches at university graduations. NPR, a public radio station in the United States, recently examined 350 of them to find the most prevalent themes. “Don’t give up,” “Embrace failure,” and “Work hard” are among the top five.
Have you noticed that all of this advice is directed solely to one person? In the actual world, however, we rarely operate alone. We sit at large tables with people from various backgrounds and must find a way to collaborate. This is becoming increasingly vital in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and uncertain. To survive in this environment, we must be flexible in our thinking and our organizations.
To do so, we’ll have to rethink what it means to be a good leader. According to recent surveys, the CEOs of the world’s most successful organizations are modest, if not shy. They do, however, share one trait: they are highly motivated by group accomplishments. They create an environment in which everyone may succeed together.
We can begin by rewriting the themes of our commencement addresses, moving away from the pyramid mindset and toward a constellation mindset. “Don’t give up” would become “Give up power – so that more can be made for everyone.” The phrase “Embrace Failure” would be changed to “Embrace Uncertainty.” And “work hard” would morph into “work through difficult problems together.”
Alternatively, we might just follow President Obama’s suggestion to a young woman during a Q&A in England. The woman inquired as to what she might do to make the world a better place. “Be predisposed to perceive the power in other people,” Obama replied.