Do We Need to Rethink Organizational Power?
I must’ve watched Ridley Scott’s movie “Gladiator” at least 30 times.
Besides “Dead Poets Society”, “John Wick” and “Good Will Hunting” there are few movies I go back to with glee every time. That’s a conversation for a separate therapy session though.
As I watched it again, some of the tropes and (not so subtle) metaphors in the movie had a deeper resonance this time than the previous 29 times I’d watched Maximus and Commodus battle to the death, egged on by the chanting of a bloodthirsty Roman crowd.
The different leadership styles. Crowe’s character Maximus is selfless, acts as an equal or peer, is deeply collaborative to build trust and cohesion. Conversely the default approach of Phoenix’s Commodus is to be presumptive, dictatorial, conniving and abusive.
The differing power dynamics. Phoenix rests his power on position and authority, conveniently deigned by the gods, coupled with an arrogant dismissal of anybody — like the Senate — who would dare challenge or debate him. Crowe forms a collective, egalitarian team, choosing to see past the fact that his fellow slaves include those traditionally beneath him in social status and several who are former sworn enemies. Their shared goal — staying alive with a side dish of vengeance — being more important than any one individual’s agenda.
The differing outcomes. Crowe lifted aloft in death, exalted, and “honoured” by the citizens of Rome as a true warrior hero. Phoenix abandoned in death, lying forgotten and ignored in the dust of the arena and battleground he had ironically created to appease the “mob” of Rome.
I never said these metaphors were subtle. Subtle and discrete isn’t Hollywood’s long suit.
But they are timely, even timeless, metaphors around leadership, power and how — and who — groups follow.
My deeper introspection (or navel gazing) over “Gladiator” was probably driven by three recent events…
Firstly, a recent opportunity to listen in on several presentations regarding Organizational Network Analysis during the 2021 ONA Summit run by Maven7. A fascinating process, which I’ve written about previously, that enables organizations to understand and activate the vibrant informal connections and conversations that exist inside every company. Case after case showed how massive change initiatives, culture transformations and incredible business turnarounds were accelerated by understanding where these connections existed — and where they were dangerously absent or broken. The idealist in me wanted to scream “why isn’t this standard practise globally?” The infinitely-more-sage participants reminded me that its often the formal network, the well-articulated boxes stacked vertically in an org chart, that are most threatened or most incredulous that they are not the most sought-after opinion or the change driver they thought. In short, the “power” suggested by an org chart doesn’t automatically confer omnipotence. More importantly, position in an org chart doesn’t automatically equate to an ability to drive impact or create influence. If, as a business leader, you’re willing to suspend the traditional notions of power and leverage tools like ONA, and others, I’ve no doubt your ability to drive true transformative change will be unmatched.
Then, there’s the ongoing media coverage of “The Great Resignation” and the increasingly binary conclusions being reached. Many of the stories pit a maniacal, power-hungry, old-school leader against a teeming horde of lowly, passionate, purpose-driven workers. The leader demanding that everyone return immediately to the office or face dismissal, the teeming mass yearning to breathe free (and untethered) from their home offices unwilling to bend or be subjugated. Like “Gladiator” those articles lack subtly (and reality?) and the stories of mass resignations seem to belie the reality of the data (see this excellent piece from The Economist) in markets outside of the UK and USA.
What isn’t debatable is that what passed for leadership and power pre-pandemic are not behaviours and attitudes that will be successful in the world we live in now. After 2 years of employees showing their ability to be productive outside of a 9–5 veal-fattening pen aka cubicle, the idea of “just return because I said so” is dangerously tone-deaf. Equally the notion that treating your people as faceless “resources” deserving of little more empathy than other resources like a pencil or laptop, isn’t going to attract and retain talent either. The swift — and legitimate — rebuke and revulsion meted out to Better.com CEO Vishal Garg for firing 900 employees en masse over Zoom serves as a watch out for any leader lacking in self-awareness or EQ. As thought leaders from Dan Pontefract to Mark Crowley to Corporate Rebels contend, the real winners in the future will understand that organizations — and organizational “power” — has become flatter, more autonomous, and more distributed.
For many of your employees, the attraction of gathering in a modern-day corporate Coliseum, hoping to be entertained, has rapidly diminished.
Finally, a brilliant podcast I listened to Wednesday on my (frigidly cold) morning walk. This episode of “Brave New Work” features the Founder of “The Ready” Aaron Dignan talking to former US ambassador Matthew Barzun about his new book “The Power of Giving Away Power”. I can’t possibly do the conversation — or the book — justice, suffice to say that Barzun makes a compelling argument that giving power away, versus hoarding it, is actually a force-multiplier of your impact and influence than something that diminishes those attributes. That we have built up a corporate narrative that there are only two states “control and power” or “anarchy and chaos” is both dangerously reductionist and woefully inaccurate. Shameless plug but do yourself a favour and listen to his brilliant mantra about how we need to move beyond concepts of “Freedom” and “Together” as polar opposites and think more in terms of “Freedom Together” — it will blow your hair back.
It’s not surprising terms like “leadership” and “power” carry such heft and weight in our society. We’ve debated, defined, refined, idolized, lionized, and vilified these words — and the people we label with them — for decades.
But, at the risk of more Hollywood hyperbole, the need to recalibrate and reconstitute these words has never been more urgent.
We know that centralized and hierarchical is out-dated and too rigid for the agility and adaptability business requires today.
We know that dictatorial, abusive, and maniacal is the fastest way to neuter, versus unleash, our culture and our talented people.
We know that terms like agency, autonomy, and accountability aren’t just catch-phrases but a bona-fide expectation of our people in this new environment.
And we know, and if we’re being honest have known for a while, that influence, admiration, legacy, and power are not deigned or designed into an org chart, they’re earned.
The question is will you do everything in your power to reappraise the structures inside your organization?
Are you willing to consider that power does manifest in different ways and within different people?
Are you confident enough to share or give up power rather than try to hoard it?
If you’re wondering what impact that reappraisal of power dynamics will have on you and your organization, I believe Maximus has the perfect reminder.