Power and Purpose

There is a reason why power has long been a vital component of American business success. But it’s changing in its nature and application.

By Dennis Boone

Writing in the December 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms penned what we might might think of as the obituary for The Organization Man.

Remember? “He” was the focus of William Whyte’s 1956 book exploring the nature of large American organizations in that era, a comparatively peaceful interval between brutal wars (Korea and Vietnam), when corporations were thriving, the suburbs were expanding, and the man of the house was running the rat race, trying to get to the top of the organizational ladder where he would attain, at long last, power.

But power as we approach the second quintile of the 20th century, and as Heimans and Timms dissected it, ain’t what it used to be. And neither is our collective understanding of it. Or our application of it. Perhaps even our appreciation of it.

The reasons for this are legion. Among the factors:

  • The information age we live in, not just for the
    volumes of content available, but for the connectivity—and disruption—it has engendered. Facebook and Wikipedia, for example, engage millions of people in the process of content generation, a power once closely held only by daily newspapers and three television networks, back when Organization Man was having his after-hours martinis. Uber and Lyft have democratized on-demand transportation, as Airbnb has done with the hospitality lodging sector, and Kickstarter has done with startup capital.
  • Demographically, new cohorts of workers using that connectivity have led us today to an entry-level generation that—even with millions of its members still in school and yet to enter the work force—is already transforming workplaces with their desire for careers that value social contributions as much as personal wealth. 
  • Corporations are changing, in part because con-nectivity has created new opportunities for competition in a global market, and in part because structures like team-based production methods and employee ownership demand reallocation of what we once thought understood to be top-down organizational power.

“When you think of The Organization Man model, we’re not seeing that as much any more,” says Laura Rees, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Management. “Workers today are more fluid; we change careers at least seven times in our lives now, and these are massive shifts.”

If power as understood half a century ago entailed getting to the top and direction the flexing of organizational muscle, the foundation of that house has crumbled. Why? Because the power once exercised under a paradigm by which workers were striving for the gold watch and company pension simply can’t be transferred to a mobile, rapidly changing work force that, statistically, could completely turn over in less than a decade.

“So in that sense,” Rees says, “organizations have changed a lot. Since workers have more flexibility and are more mobile, than 50 years ago, even 30, we don’t have the hierarchy in the same way. Workers want to be more involved in their own careers, and decisions and they want to come into their careers at different levels—it’s not such a straight-ladder climb anymore.”

Perhaps, says Laurie DiPadova-Stocks, of the School of Business at Park University, our understanding of power is becoming more sophisticated. She certainly hopes so.

“People don’t like to think of themselves as having power, because often, it has a negative connotation,” she said. “One can appear arrogant if you admit, ‘yes, I have power,’ and we often think of it in historic terms, as instances where brute force was used. We haven’t as a society built a positive image of power that people could apply to themselves.”

Rather, she said, we’re more comfortable as a society talking about authority, which isn’t precisely the same as holding power. Even though Millennials, she suggested, are able to use a kind of informal, newfound power to do good in the world, “they don’t necessarily look at themselves as having power, they don’t think they would apply that term to themselves.”

The curriculum of almost any business training, or professional or leadership program, she said, is built around the proper application of power, “but without mentioning the word. We tend to avoid that word.”

Jake Bucher, dean of the School of Professional and Graduate Studies at Baker University, also sees the antiquated construct of top-down power yielding to a shared sense of power, and purpose.

“I would throw in terms like empowerment, self-advocacy, and self-management—I see those as being more effective applications of power in current business environments,” Bucher said. “Workers, the labor force, direct reports, they all are more responsive, not so much when supervisors are telling them what to do, but when given an opportunity to do things for themselves.”

For management, he says, that means “more legwork, because it’s easier to give directions and orders. To use influence or authority in ways that have people owning the processes is more involved. But in the long term, the literature suggests increases in both performance and job satisfaction. There will still be the holdouts who say ‘tell me what to do,’ but that’s less effective.”

And yet, there are limits to the ability of power-sharing to get some things done, Bucher noted.

“Absolutely—you still have to have that person in charge, the decision-makers who are providing opportunities for voice and engagement. If they use that influence well, they get to the same result anyway. If not, then it’s a coaching moment where they make the decision anyway, and have developed their folks to do better the next time.”

Power exercised in the business world has not always been confined to business administration. Think about Kansas City a little more than a century ago: names like William Rockhill Nelson, R.A. Long, J.C. Nichols and William T. Kemper succeeded spectacularly in business, but also played outsized roles in building a city they considered worthy of such successful enterprises. We live today with amenities they helped create, and in some ways, continue to harvest the benefits of an entrepreneurial culture they inspired.

But does a changing power construct in business today imply changes for the way power brokers of capitalism today drive the community forward?

“I  think so, but I haven’t seen research to that effect,” Bucher said. “It would be interesting if someone looked into that, the cultural impact of that. But our work influences our day-to-day lives, and as work changes, so will the surrounding community. The whole notion of time management and efficiency, the assembly-line model, maximizing worker productivity—we saw all of that bleed into communities and family lives, and people started organizing themselves in a similar fashion. So the idea of shared power, or somewhat equal voice, carries over into community organizations.”

There remains today a need for that kind of business influence on civic agenda-setting, he said, “but it looks a little different today. Look at what the folks at Cerner do; I think they have a heavy influence on the public sector, and I see their influence not just in higher education, but in other community efforts. It’s still there, and I think that’s important.”

If power from the business community is changing, even ebbing in its influence, is it because the growth of government has instilled in us an acceptance that the public sector should be the primary force to put forth a civic vision?

“You know, when Sarah Chandler Coates came to this city in the 1850s, she didn’t like it here,” DiPadova-Stocks
said of one of Kansas City’s earliest civic whirlwinds. “You look to examples of people moving from the coast to the frontier with little civic infrastructure and building things. I see them as remarkable examples. 

“But the role of government, in my view, is that we have so many issues today, we all need to work together. There are some things government simply cannot do. But there are some that non-profits can’t do, but need the support of government,” she said. “And there are some things business can’t do. But I have a problem-based view, not a sector-based view. To me, it’s all hands on deck to improve a whole community.”

In that sense, then, it might be true that power really does work best when it’s shared. But that’s in the current business, civic and social climate. Whether that’s the case a century from now—well, most of us will never know.