There’s a Conversation Brewing About Power that Needs #MoreVoices

December 17, 2014 0 Comments

Originally published at Take The Lead

One of the best pieces of career/organizing advice I ever got is this: “You’re never going to convince anybody about anything. Work with the already convinced or semi-convinced.” I try to keep this in mind. I also keep in mind one of my values that we must work with people we don’t agree with. Balancing the two is difficult, but worth it.

I just came from a participatory leadership event in New York called “Creating Impact Through Engagement” where Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Tim Merry offered a concept to changemakers that helps people get good work done together. Seemingly impossible work. It’s the concept of “shared work” rather than shared analysis. In other words, so often we think we have to share the same view as other people to get work done in partnership with them, but maybe this isn’t true. Often this keeps us stuck. Wanting someone to share our analysis of how something works not only is insanely difficult, it’s not helpful. “Shared work” allows us to move forward rather than bang our heads against a wall. I loved this idea.

Then, I got the opportunity to put this idea to the test with something I really care about. In the middle of this training, two friends and colleagues forwarded me a link to an article called “Understanding ‘New Power’” in Harvard Business Review, one they knew I’d be interested in and that we all felt lacked women’s voices. The article both excited and bothered me. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms wrote a piece about “old power” and “new power” and all the generative benefits of new power for businesses and the world. As a systems thinker and proponent for more equitable organizations – organizations that are more reflective of the world we actually live in – this was exciting. Old power, the authors tell us, is “closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven.” (I’d add “traditional, heroic, all-knowing” type of leader-driven.) New power is more “open, participatory, and peer driven.” And new power reflects a growing assumption, “that we all have an inalienable right to participate.” Or, as I like to say, “everyone brings knowledge.” I didn’t agree with everything in the article, but some of the core ideas I agreed with and was psyched to see out there.

But unfortunately, Heimans and Timms also wrote an article that, in its production, by giving no credit to feminist and women scholars and activists throughout history who have advanced so much critical work around power and no reference/credit to participatory leadership as a field, perpetuated the same “old power” patterns that I imagine they are trying to disrupt with this “new power” concept. As they write themselves:

“Those who deploy new power models but default to old power values are especially at risk of alienating the communities that sustain them. This isn’t simply a problem of mindset, where organizations lose touch with the crowds that made them prosper. It is also a practical challenge: The expectations of critical stakeholders—investors, regulators, advertisers, and so on—often run counter to the demands of new power communities, and balancing those agendas is not easy.”

In fact, old power ideas and language show up a bunch of places in this otherwise thoughtful piece. After talking about how new power is shared and generative, with its limitations certainly, but more open and generative than competitive, they describe the future as a bleak one and all about control:

“The battle ahead, whether you favor old or new power values, will be about who can control and shape society’s essential systems and structures. Will new power forces prove capable of fundamentally reforming existing structures?”

Heimans and Timms don’t share my analysis around power, but they’re doing work that shifts leaders’ and organizations’ understanding of how power functions or could function. Our shared work is around the challenge they so eloquently name at the end of their article: “redesigning society’s systems and structures to meaningfully include and empower more people.” The authors and I come from different backgrounds, we all hold different positions in society than each other, and we haven’t read all of the same books, but we have shared work. I’m not sure how important it is that they’ve read the same books I have (or how important it is that I’ve read the same books you have). But I know our shared work is important if we are going to create more gender balanced, just organizations and “serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems,” as the authors say.

How do we practice new power behaviors at work (in our for-profit and nonprofit organizations and in the way we interact with each other)? What can women and other marginalized groups bring to this conversation that help move this conversation along so it has its greatest impact? How do we make visible work that historically has been made invisible or devalued? Answering these questions requires some of us stepping back and saying “I don’t know” and letting other people answer them, giving them the mic. It requires some comfort with being wrong and with uncertainty. It requires all sorts of “new power” on both sides.

To start, I’ve read and commented on this piece and invite you do the same. Thank you to the authors and to the editors at HBR for starting (reviving?) an important dialogue. Now let’s open it up and see how far we can take it.


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