Are You Giving Up Power?

When I spoke at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s Summit,  the first question asked in the room was this: “Doesn’t this Mean I am Giving up Power?” And I loved it. This is what women do: we dive into the heart of an issue so we can deal with directly. Just as surely as social boosts the bottom line, it’s hard to figure out what needs to change. And until you and I understand the key shifts, we can’t possibly engage fully. So when Katherine Bell of Harvard Business Review asked me to do a custom leadership piece for a Social Section she’s curating, I wrote this piece, below. During the process, I evolved my idea of what defines power.


You know that social interactions with the marketplace are becoming a source for innovation, strategy, product development, organizational alignment, and pretty much every important thing your organization does. In the Social Era, value will be (maybe even already is) no longer created primarily by people who work for you or your organization.

You might know all of that, but are you fully embracing it?

Lately, whenever I give a talk about social collaboration, the first question I hear from the audience goes something like this: Are you craaazzeeee? Well, to be fair, people usually find a way to phrase it slightly better. The real question, the specific one, is always the same: how is this going to affect the amount of power I have? People deep within organizations are wondering if they will finally get a chance to participate. Middle managers are worrying if they are still needed. And senior leaders are asking, “Won’t I have to give up power?”

This last question is a great and common one. It’s also complex, so let me take it apart to answer it:

1. Isn’t power about being the boss? Traditionally, being powerful within an organization has been a function of three aspects of bossness: (a) your title and rank within the hierarchy, (b) your span of control, or how many people you direct, and (c) your budget and/or profit and loss responsibilities. These allow you to direct activities and allocate resources — and by doing so, control other people. Power was also tied to eliteness — having the right degrees from the right schools would mean you would be picked over others. The Social Era has disrupted all this. (I wrote about this in a recent post, Just How Powerful Are You?) Now, power can also come from social collaboration. batman_alfredIf Kickstarter, TEDx, and Wikipedia and other related platforms have taught us nothing else, it’s that people can become powerful without first being picked or vetted, through what we create together. Being powerful is less about being the boss, and more about sharing or championing ideas. (It is less Batman, and more Alfred  using an American superhero archetype and you might remember I wrote about what Batman Can Teach us.) Leadership position no longer matters as much as leadership itself (a distinction Peter Senge wrote about in The Fifth Discipline). It’s still true that as a function of our positions, some of us will have an easier time getting our ideas to be seen, heard, and shared. But if we redefine power as the capacity of a human to shape the future — as I believe we must — we all benefit. Bossness may or may not be involved, and it only matters in so much as it helps you frame and shape the future.

2. Aren’t I paid to know the answer? Well, yes and no. Largely because of the Internet’s great search tools and ease of sharing content, an average person today can be more informed today than the richest billionaire was 20 years ago. This prevalence of information is the main reason why everyone is able to contribute and why being the keeper of all answers isn’t really that valuable anymore. Add to that the millenniums’ desire to make a meaningful contribution and you have a talent pool that doesn’t need or want you to have the answer; they expect to play a role in coming up with the answer. As knowledge, capacity, and expectations grow, people have to change how they work together. In my first book on collaborative work, I nicknamed a character “The Chief of Answers”. This person felt he had to know everything, and one day I asked him, what does that do to the rest of your people if you are “the one” who knows everything? And he realized that by making himself the “chief of answers,” he turned everyone else into the “tribe of doing things.” That limited his informed, educated, and motivated colleagues and their ability to contribute. Collaboration is strongly correlated to innovation (according to research commissioned by Google), and you can use it to solve complex problems. But it doesn’t work if you aren’t willing to let go of knowing everything already. Many people have built their careers and their identities on being experts, and for them this can be terrifying. But being the chief of answers is exhausting, and it leads to diminishing returns. When an organization crowns a few people as chiefs of answers, it forces ideas to move slowly up and down the hierarchy, which makes the organization resistant to change and less competitive. The Social Era raises the pressure on leaders to move from knowing everything to knowing what needs to be addressed and then engaging many people in solving that, together. They should frame the challenge and point out the horizon, helping those involved know what matters and why. That means more ideas arise and can be acted on, and the people closest to problems can solve them. If you define leadership as we did above, that means by giving up some direct control, leaders actually expand their power.

3. Doesn’t this just mean I get the blame if an idea fails and no praise if it succeeds? In a collaborative / crowd-sourcing / co-creative world, there are lot of hands in every pie. Not just the leader, but everyone involved could worry that it’s not clear who is doing what and that they won’t be recognized for the value they create. But in practice, all this activity leads to more ownership, not less, and it’s clearer who is adding value and who is not. Look at any collaborative interaction in the coming week and you’ll realize that, just as you are assessing who is really showing up to create value, others are as well. Leaders worry about whether their division will get credit so that when it comes to budget times they can get more resources. But as we’ve already discussed, the social resources we all now have access to mean that in many circumstances budgetary resources matter less.

Power: it does not define you. You get to define it
Power: it does not define you. You get to define it

This is a big shift.

If you currently equate your power with your bossness, your ability to have all the answers, and getting credit for everything you do, then you are set up to thrive in the past. Thriving in the Social Era requires different skills: collaborating rather than commanding, framing and guiding rather than telling, and sharing power rather than hoarding it. Can you make the change? Yes. Will you? Well, only you can decide that.


As is always true with the work I do with Harvard Business Review, I ask you to make comments directly at the main site so it can help us have a shared dialogue. Go here:

(Thanks as always and I look forward to our ongoing dialogue on power and leadership … )

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