Getting things done in this complicated world of ours generally means mobilizing other people and resources to make it happen. And mobilizing people and resources requires power. How do you acquire power? How does power work?
I took me a very long time in my life to understand that there are two types of power in the world. One of them looks very strong, but is actually quite weak and temporary. The other kind of power looks very weak and ephemeral, but is actually very strong and enduring. What I eventually figured out is that if you want to get something done in the world, something that is big and important, you need to understand the second type of power.
Power That Looks Strong But is Weak
Let me show you what I mean.
In 1985, I got a phone call from the number two guy in the World Bank, this big international institution in Washington DC, where I was working at the time. He told me to come to his office and when I got there, he said, “We are going to put you in charge of streamlining the procedures of the World Bank.”
Now that’s like being asked to do mission impossible. The World Bank had procedures that had grown like kudzu over the years. Task forces had been appointed to fix the situation, and they had all failed. So here I was being asked to try again to tackle mission impossible.
“How long do I have to do it?” I asked.
“Six weeks,” he said, which was kind of ridiculous.
So I asked him, “What do you expect us to accomplish in six weeks?”
And he said, “Nothing.”
“Actually,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with the procedures in the World Bank. There’s a lot of grumbling and griping going on. So we’ve decided to appoint a couple of rebels like you to a task force to see whether anything can be done. You won’t accomplish much because the procedures are basically ok. And so then I’ll be able to go back to the organization and tell all the people who are complaining that we put these rebels to see what could be done and they found that nothing couldn’t be done. So stop complaining! Basically there’s nothing wrong with the procedures.”
So I was being set up to fail.
And then I asked, “Is there anything we can’t do in terms of fixing the procedures?”
“Everything is open,” he said, “except for one thing.” And then he mentioned the one thing that was the source of most of the problems in the procedures. “You can’t touch that,” he said, “but everything else is open.”
So I got together with the other “rebels” who had been appointed to the task force. And within a day, we had come up with over a hundred changes that needed to be made. And it was immediately obvious that we wouldn’t get anywhere unless we could change the one thing that we were not allowed to change.
Eventually, as our work proceeded, I managed to get into a dialogue with this number two guy and asked him why did he like the procedures the way they were. Why couldn’t we touch the basic cause of the problems? And I found that there were two reasons. One reason was that he thought that the board of directors would never go along with it. And the other reason was that there were some things in the procedures that were important for him to do his work and he was worried that those things would be in jeopardy.
Once I had figured that out, I was able to make informal contacts with the board of directors and put before them a set of proposals that would make their life better and they said, “Wow! That’s fabulous!”
And I took our proposals to the number two guy and showed him the proposed changes that would actually preserve and enhance all of the things that he needed for his work. And he was delighted.
So within six weeks, we had actually come up with a set of streamlined procedures which everybody in the whole organization loved. It was unanimous from the board of directors through the managers down to the people on the front lines doing the work. Everyone said, “This is wonderful!”
And so the proposals were implemented in full, except for one thing. We had a recommendation in our report that said in effect, “Look, the root cause of all that kudzu is not being addressed here. In six weeks, we have come up with changes to the procedures, but there are other factors driving the kudzu. So we suggest that you keep our group in existence and we will get to the source of the kudzu and then we will have a reform that will stick.”
That was not accepted.
Everything else was implemented with huge enthusiasm. And the task force was disbanded. We were told to go back to work. And sure enough, within a couple of years, the kudzu was back. The procedures had grown back close to where they were before.
Looking on that experience, I can see that I could have taken a stand. I could have said, “We have to attack the root cause of the problem. That’s the most important recommendation in the whole report. Everything else is worth nothing unless we do that.”
If I had taken a stand, my chances were probably around fifty-fifty. A fifty percent chance that I would get to tackle the root cause and have a lasting success.
But there was also a fifty percent chance that I would get into a real fight with the top management and my career would hit the skids. I would be running the risk of being seen as not just a rebel but a troublemaker.
So I didn’t do it. I didn’t insist. I took my winnings and didn’t protest. I had had this unexpected triumph, and astonished everyone. We had accomplished mission impossible, after all the previous task forces had failed. So I agreed to turn the page and move on.
And in career terms, my game plan worked. In due course, I got bigger and more important positions. I had a big corner office with a beautiful view of Washington DC. I had hundreds of people reporting to me. I could give commands. I could cut budgets. I could add budgets. I could recruit people. I could cut programs.
In this role, I had many successes. But the successes were contingent or temporary successes. This type of power was dependent the position that I was occupying. They didn’t lead to lasting change. And I kept wondering why.
Power That Looks Weak But is Strong
Fast forward to the mid 1990s. I am now the director of the Africa Region. The Africa Region handles about a third of the lending operations in this big international organization.
So I am beginning to think that this is a pretty important kind of position. Then the situation abruptly changes.
The president of the World Bank suddenly dies. My boss retires. Somebody else is appointed to my position. So I went to see the number two guy in the World Bank—a different number two guy—and ask him whether they had anything for me. He basically says no. They don’t have anything for me. But I press him and eventually he says to go and look into information. Information is like Siberia. It is like the end of the world. I am being sent to Siberia.
As it happened, I am interested in information. But I can also see that fixing information wasn’t going to fix the World Bank’s problems. We have to go deeper. We have to share our knowledge with all the millions of people who make decisions about poverty.
I realize at this point that my career doesn’t exist any more. So now I make a commitment. I am going to make this happen. I am going to make knowledge sharing a reality in the World Bank. I may get kicked out. I may get punished. But I don’t care. Making this happen is more important to me than any of those things. I am going to make it happen, whatever it takes.
And so for the next four years, that’s what I did. And after four years, the idea had become a major force in the organization. We were benchmarked as a world leader in knowledge sharing. And thousands of people all around the world were engaged in making it happen.
How Real Change Actually Happens
The difference between those two examples is this. In the first, I was still tending my career. I was taking risks, and I was having success, but I hadn’t committed to make it happen, come what may.
In the second example, I actually made a definite commitment: I am going to make this happen, whatever the consequences to my career.
It was only when I got to the point where I said: “I don’t care whether you see me as a troublemaker or not: this has to happen! I have a goal and I am going to do whatever it takes to head to that goal, no matter what.”
That’s when things really started to happen. That’s when I had the passion and the energy and the enthusiasm to get other people to join this cause, and so make this huge strategic change in the organization to go from being a bank—an organization that lent money—to being an organization that shared its knowledge with the world.
That whole change began with one person—a person at that point with no position and no career. Certainly I had background and understanding and knowledge of what needed to be done. But the key thing was that I took a stand and said: “We are going to make this happen.
That’s when my life started to become exciting. Then my life started to have meaning. Then I was living in the present. I was doing what I really believed in. I was doing what I knew was right. And magical things started to happen, which hadn’t happened when I was tending my career and having lots of institutional power. It was when I had practically none of that, none of the institutional power, when things really began to happen.
That was because I had the irresistible power of a single individual who has a great idea and who was unconditionally committed to it and who could recruit other people who believed in the idea and so the idea began to happen on a massive scale.
So it took me a very long time to understand these two very different types of power. The first kind of power looks very powerful but is actually very temporary and very weak. The other type of power looks very weak, but is actually very strong and long-lasting.
The first type of power is the type of power that most people think about when they talk about power. It’s dependent on formal authority and on having a formal position of power. It took me the longest time to understand that the other type of power.
When I was tending my career in the World Bank, I had a lot of outward success, and appeared to have lots of power. But when I had none of that in terms of institutional power—no position, no career, no apparent authority—I had the irresistible power of someone with a great idea, who was unconditionally committed to it and who could recruit other people who also believed in the idea, and so the idea happened on a massive scale.
So there are these two types of power. There is the institutional power which is corrupting and largely worthless. And there is the other type of power which is enriching and fulfilling and requires courage. But if you can live that kind of life, it’s a real life. The other life is a half life. One is only half alive.
Today when I look around the organizations today, both in the private sector and in the public sector, in health, in education, and associations and non-governmental organizations, I know that change is going to happen when one person takes a stand and says, “I am going to make this happen.” I may perish in the course of it, but I am going to make it happen, whatever it takes.
And it starts with one person. One person plants a stake in the ground and says, “This is worth doing.” And that person commits to it. And if it really is worth doing, and that person commits to it, there will be no difficulty in getting other people to join the coalition. It doesn’t really matter where they are in the hierarchy. The power doesn’t come from the hierarchy. The power comes from the commitment to the idea.
The Risk of the Centurion Guards
Now when you do this and you make this commitment, you are taking a risk. At first, it’s not a big risk, because initially, you are seen as irrelevant. You are just one person, and you have this strange new idea and the hierarchy pays you no attention. You are not dangerous at all and so the centurion guards ignore you.
But once your coalition starts to form and you have a whole group of people who believe in the idea, and are starting to implement the idea, then centurion guards start paying attention. In due course they find out that you exist, and that you have planted a stake in the ground, and that you are putting together this coalition of people who also believe in the idea and are starting to implement it. And you don’t respond to suggestions to cease and desist.
At this point, the centurion guards realize that you have become a dangerous person. So at this point, then it becomes a race for time, to get to the top of the organization and get the support of the top for the idea that you are pursuing. You have to get there before the centurion guards put you out of business. So you do eventually need the very top of the organization. You need get their support before the centurion guards put you out of business. And when you have that support from the very top, then you have a mandate to change the organization.
But the mandate is limited in time. You are safe, but only temporarily. Once you have the support of the very top, the centurion guards stop harassing you, because they are not willing to challenge the top openly. But they haven’t gone away. They are in hiding. So now things seem calm, but this is actually a very dangerous time. It’s a time when you appear to have the support of the top, and the centurion guards are lurking in the background, waiting for the first setback to happen. Then they can emerge from the shadows, and say, “Look! We told you so! This was a dangerous and horrible idea. We’ve got to close these people down!” So you cannot ever forget about the centurion guards.
Check Your Parachute!
And because you have caused all this change and turmoil in the organization, no matter how successful you are, you should be making sure that you have some kind of parachute. You should be thinking, “Where do I go after this?” (4.07)
If you look at the hundred or so people in Larry Prusak’s book, “What’s the Big Idea?”, people who made major change happen in organizations, very few of them stayed with the organization on a long term basis and were celebrated for the changes that they had wrought. They are seen as dangerous people.
Even Taiichi Ohno, who invented the whole Toyota production system, was never fully honored within Toyota. He was given a kind of second-rate promotion in one of Toyota’s suppliers. He wasn’t honored as the person who had invented the Toyota production system and made Toyota the great company that it became. He wasn’t honored as the person who had invented 20th Century management fifty years before its time. Toyota owed its success to him. But he was tolerated rather than honored. He was seen as not acting in the way that a senior executive in Toyota is meant to act. He created all this success, but in the process he caused a great deal of turmoil. And he wasn’t amenable to instruction. So he wasn’t truly honored within Toyota. He has been honored since and his contributions have been recognized outside Toyota and around the world. But inside Toyota, at the time, he was seen as a difficult and even risky kind of person. He was the kind of person who wasn’t necessarily going to follow instructions from the hierarchy. He was going to do what he thought was right. And so he made the hierarchy nervous. So they eventually parked him in a safe place.
So you have to realize that you may not become a hero in your own country. You may have to work for other countries.
People with authentic power, even if they are not creating a lot of turmoil, are often perceived as frightening by other people because they can’t be manipulated by the usual rewards of “the system”. They are their own person. You give them a below-average merit increase. You move them to a new assignment. They don’t care! They say, “We are not interested in that. We are interested in achieving the goal.” And so others can see that these are dangerous people.
This Is How The USA Was Formed
If you look back, you can see that that’s how the USA was formed. They were traders causing England some problems and so England said we have to put them down. So that was a group of people that hung together so that they wouldn’t hang together. What did they accomplish in the first years? The Declaration of Independence. Then the Constitution and that form of government in the first years. That was actually amazing.
This Is Not About You
So real power is not about you. It’s about change. It’s about creating a new world. You are just scaffolding for the change. You are a catalyst. You are not what it’s about. It’s not about become famous and celebrated. It’s about having a real life. It’s about living in the present. And doing that for other people, so that they too can live in the present.
So you have to go into this with your eyes open.
There is a seduction of the first kind of power. You get used to the perks and the influence and all that sort of stuff and it’s hard for people to risk losing all of that. So you have a lot of people thinking about and tending their careers.
With the second type of power, you’re not thinking about and tending your career. You’re not thinking about climbing up the managerial ladder. And yet, paradoxically, it is sometimes the fastest way to climb the ladder. The point is that your ladder is not leaning against the same wall as the hierarchy. It’s a different wall and a different ladder.
It Means Playing An Infinite Game
There’s a really interesting book by James Carse, called Finite and Infinite Games. [i]It says that in life, there at least two games. Finite games are played for the purpose of winning. And infinite games which are played for the purpose of continuing to play. You can play finite games inside the infinite game, but not the reverse. You can’t play an infinite game inside a finite. And what we are talking about here is an infinite game, a game that never ends.
In a finite game, you lose power when the game ends and you no longer have a position within the game. In an infinite game, the game never ends because your power doesn’t depend on holding a position. In an infinite game, you may go on being powerful, long after you have left any formal position of authority, and even after you have died, because your idea lives on in the minds and hearts of those you have inspired.
[i] James Carse: Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (Ballantine, 1987)