Do You Want Power or Entertainment?

I woke up this Sunday and I had a terrible nostalgia for the days where my morning question was not:

“What have the politicians done to entertain us today?”

All around the world politics has become far too similar to a reality television show.  The politicians, the media and our focus is on the daily conflicts, dramas and stupidities. The media environment and the demand of the media audience is far less concerned about leadership (other than the theatre of a leadership contest) than the entertainment of the political show. We have forgotten that the exercise of power for the betterment of society is more important that a following.

Politics is not alone in this confusion. Thought Leadership and other forms of punditry also shows a similar confusion. The accuracy or effectiveness of advice to better society now matters less than the ability to entertain and accumulate an audience. Platitudes and gross simplifications play better than difficult messages or a call to hard work.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Conflict has always entertained humans. Conflict is the key to all our storytelling. Threat based narratives help us understand our tribes and bind together in times of adversity. We can see why politicians and pundits rely on them heavily. Inspirational narratives tend to appeal to our ego, our desire for ease and the uniqueness of our community and suggest the inevitability of our future success as long as we continue to follow the advice of the storyteller. We are suckers for entertainment as the makers of content for our mobile phones are well aware. Politicians, thought leaders, media commentators and even corporate executives are just meeting the market demand.

Increasingly, in the age of mobile devices, entertainment is a solo activity. We have lost much of the collective experience of entertainment that was the standard experience of previous generations. That lack of collective context weakens the foundations of community and hinders collaboration. We need shared context and trust to come together to make change happen. Trust is an outcome of the work and the experiences we share together. If we are each following our own personal entertainment guru, there is a fragmentation of that larger shared community.

As social technology and far better media tools creep into corporate life, we have also seen the rise of the executive as entertainer. Senior management can now engage and cultivate a following internally through collaboration tools and externally through social media and even traditional media roles. For some the dynamic changes from leading to entertaining. Rather than advocating for change and conflict within the organisation, it is easier to demonise an Other, such as a competitor, an external stakeholder or abstraction like errors or waste and demand the attention of a following without pushing people to change themselves. These executives are far less likely to demand challenging change of people themselves for fear that they lose part of their following or that they lose status to someone who promises a more compelling external enemy or an easier life.

We Need Power

We need to do more than meet a market demand for entertainment. We need power to push us beyond the limitations of our own efforts and our own imagination. We need the power to step outside of our individual potential and collaborate with others. The exercise of power in this way is called leadership.

A comment in a recent article on the often hidden role of power in design practice put the issue in a way that helped me see the connection:

The definition of power: the ability to influence an outcome

This quote starkly highlights the connection of power and leadership. We can often confuse power with its past abuses or the privilege that vests it undeservedly or unevenly in others. We can prefer our power to be responsive to the needs of the community. However, as Adam Kahane has pointed out in Power and Love, it is wishful thinking to wish power away or to demand that leaders are only responsive.

Leadership is about influence. Leadership is about achieving outcomes together with and through the work of a community. Without any resulting outcome, all you are doing is entertaining the community with a show. Bringing people together to help address complex social issues is going to take the exercise of power.

We need leadership because we need the action of small self-governing communities of change. That work is the power that matters now. We cannot rely on the politicians, the thought leaders, the senior executives or the experts to deliver us. We will have to do the work of change ourselves.

Arbitrary Power

‘A tyrannick and arbitrary power …is contrary to the Will and Happiness of any rational being’. – Benjamin Franklin

Arbitrary power has a huge effect on the human psyche. We have devoted much of our efforts at civilisation to restrain its negative effects. So why does your organisation still have arbitrary power?

The Civilisation of the Arbitrary

The cost of arbitrary power on human performance is real. We have spent centuries trying to restrain it.

We began sacrificing to fickle gods in efforts to control the weather, prosperity or safety in a harsh and uncertain world. We build institutions to protect us from the arbitrary powers of other tribes and eventually our own. We invented insurance to mitigate the uncontrollable. Our culture is rife with constraints on untrammelled power: etiquette, rule of law, political systems, etc.

The Last Domain

We’ve come a long way to constrain the arbitrary power in our businesses. All sorts of legal and social changes have made the modern organisation in many ways different to that of the early capitalists. However our organisation remain the social sphere with the strongest residual legacy of arbitrary power.

The costs of fickle managers are real. Engagement is poor. Trust is low. The psychological costs of a highly uncertain workplace are rising. We even impose our corporate power on customers and the community in arbitrary ways. All this results in wasted human potential at work and wider social impacts

If we have spent so much effort to constrain power and to make it fit within human relationships, why don’t we extend that throughout our workplace? Next time you have a choice ask yourself is there a way to make this process more engaging, transparent and predictable? You may not change the results of the process but you will be making work more human and improving the long term outcomes.

On influence

There are only two powers in the world, saber and mind; at the end, saber is always defeated by mind – Napoleon Bonaparte

Power is the ability to make someone do what you want. Power is fleeting.

Influence is the ability to shape someone’s beliefs and actions. Influence endures.

Power is yours. Influence is the others.

Power begins with talking. Influence begins with listening.

Power is open to the few prepared to use or threaten force. Influence is open to everyone who is prepared to discuss.

Power provokes countervailing power. Influence fosters the influence of all.

Power comes with uniforms. Influence is as diverse as the voices of humanity.

The use of power frustrates the ability to influence. Those forced against their will are rarely open to persuasion. The use of influence retains the option of force.

Influence prevails eventually. That moment begins when diverse, purposeful and connected people discuss what they want openly.

Choose influence.

Soft power

In a world that is often obsessed with force, much more is accomplished every day through influence.

Every year Monocle magazine publishes a soft power index chronicling the rising influence of various nations. Much of that soft power is attributable to the influence generated through tourism, aid, music, arts and other creative endeavours. These activities build connection, reciprocity and trust and importantly improve influence by making a nation a leading example or aspiration that others wish to follow.

In organisations, soft power plays a critical but often unexamined role. Role models have great influence. Invisible networks of advice, support, trust and generosity weave through organisations. With increasing options off exit, voice or passive resistance, people choose to follow much more than they are forced. I have never seen a leader survive a mutiny so force has its limits.

A famous HBR article once asked:

‘Why should anyone be led by you?’

The article’s recommendations highlight the human side of leadership. They focus on examples of soft power like empathy, understanding, vulnerability, interpreting soft data and leveraging personal strengths and inspiration.

Everyone in an organisation has the ability to build and leverage their soft power. It comes from building strong personal networks. In an era where networks are increasingly important understanding and using levers of soft power is increasingly important.

Soft power is ultimately the way leaders address the soft issues of management. The soft issues of management are the hard ones to solve. Edicts are easy. Engagement is hard.

Take a purposeful stand that reflects who you are. Engage with others with generosity, creativity, empathy and trust. LIke Monocle’s creative nations, you will find collaboration becomes easier, others follow your lead and your influence on the rise.

Your soft power is you.