I am grateful to my friend Kirsty McNeil for recommending this impressive talk by the Venezuelan writer and commentator Moises Naim. The Senior Associate in the International Economics program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that all over the world and in every major domain of organisation – politics, military, business – leaders are losing power. Some of the statistics he cites are compelling, for example:
In only four out of the thirty four OECD countries does the party running the Government have a majority in the legislature
In contrast to the nineteenth century, in most wars in the second half of the twentieth century it was the weaker side (the one with fewer soldiers and hardware) that won
As we know, the rate at which large business corporations rise and fall has been steadily expanding
Naim argues for a goldilocks view of power – it is best when it is neither too concentrated nor too diffused and weak. He concludes by saying we need a wave of political innovation and that it is coming but, frustratingly, he doesn’t say what it will comprise.
In my annual lecture last year I too argued that hierarchical power was crumbling and, in what I would like to claim is a more sophisticated version of my version of Naim’s goldilocks thesis, that effective organisations and society need a balance of hierarchical, soldiaristic and individualist power. Perhaps Naim will address the shape of political innovation in his forthcoming book ‘The end of power’ but while he is keeping his powder dry, here are three types of innovation I predict:
Localisation: The most effective forms of power will be those which best balance necessary central authority with maximum decentralisation. For it is, generally, easier to handle complexity, be responsive and build horizontal relationships locally. Concretely, this will mean a shrinking of the central state and growing status for local leaders.
Openness: Deep and long held assumptions – the ends justify the means, organisational culture can be self-serving, communication is about spin not substance – will wither away and leaders will finally recognise that they need to behave as if they are operating in a glass box. Concretely, instead of hiding difficult choices or pretending they can be wished away, organisations will try to engage stakeholders with their dilemmas.
Normative leadership: Leaders will ask for a mandate based not on their ability to solve followers’ problems but on their ability to inspire followers to create their own answers. Concretely, leaders will be more modest in two ways: promising radical change in fewer domains (offering merely openness and good stewardship in others) and being clear that achieving change is conditional on the response of the public (see the Mayor of Oklahoma for my favourite example of this kind of leadership in practice).
All in all, the new models of power should be more humane and liberating than the old but, as Naim implies, the big question is this: how much damage will result from the decay of old power and will new power emerge in time to address a growing number of currently intractable social and economic problems?
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.