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Are We Witnessing the End of Power?

There is a war going on. It is a war against the concentration of power in the hands of the few. For many, the prelude to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election has seemed less like a traditional campaign been more like an uprising. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, consummate outsiders, lead the polls thanks in large part to their unabashed criticism of “big government” and “big pharma,” and against the concentration of power in the grasp of the few.

This shift of power, from the few to the many, from governing authorities to citizens, has been in the global spotlight for the past several years. The recent election of the Syriza party in Greece, the Arab Spring uprising, the global Occupy movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement each demonstrate the capacity of crowds to create change. Even within government, the challenge to traditional power is present, as evidenced by the continuing threat to shut down the U.S. Government by the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.

All these developments could reasonably lead one to believe that the world is currently in the midst of a revolution, aided by technology, in the ways people use and think about power.

In his landmark book The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, Moisés Naím argues that the world is indeed in a revolution over power. In his view, power is shifting downwards: it’s more dispersed, distributed, and available than ever before in history.

We see it everywhere. In business, more nimble and de-centralized organizations are supplanting traditional, pyramid-shaped or tiered organizations with layers of management. Some ambitious companies are adopting unconventional operational structures such as “holacracy”—otherwise referred to as “flat” management—or reverse hierarchies that aim to place executives at the rule of their subordinates.[1][2]

Power has also shifted from the producer to the consumer. The latter, in many cases, has gained stakeholder status, and can challenge company policy through a Twitter campaign or Facebook post. Consumer-driven movement such as the “triple bottom line”—that is people, planet, and profit—have prompted some companies to reconsider their profit-only focus and reincorporate as hybrid organizations.

In the media, traditional outlets and networks have lost ground to everyday content producers using sharing and social networking platforms such as Medium and YouTube. Protestors on all sides of the political spectrum have made their voices heard and influenced national conversation through online crusades such as #BlackLivesMatter and #GamerGate. These movements have attained coverage in established publications like The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine.

MOOCs (massive open online courses), from MIT to Stanford to startups like Kahn Academy, are putting information directly into the hands of the learner. Some individuals take education further into their own hands, approaching learning entrepreneurially through self-guided lessons, free internet-based apps and tools, and an unprecedented connection with people of different cultures around the world.

Power—over oneself and one’s environment—is changing at a fundamental degree. From political scientists to leadership coaches, pundits have taken notice. In his article “Get Smart: Combining Hard and Soft Power” Joseph S. Nye writes about the ways in which critical, global issues rest with the mainstream, and governments have an imperative to treat power carefully:

“World politics today is like a three-dimensional chess game. At the top level, military power among states is unipolar; but at the middle level, of interstate economic relations, the world is multipolar and has been so for more than a decade. At the bottom level, of transnational relations (involving such issues as climate change, illegal drugs, pandemics, and terrorism), power is chaotically distributed and diffuses to nonstate actors.”

Is power any better in the hands of the many than it is in the hands of the few? Is the crowd necessarily fairer, wiser, and more effective than a single leader?

“People power” does not automatically translate to more humane uses of power. No doubt, power in the hands of the people can overturn a dictator, but it can also overturn the rights of a minority group. A company run by flat teams can encourage more creative employees, but it can also produce convoluted office politics, bullying, and a culture of preferentialism. History proves again and again that power has a corrupting influence in anyone’s hands. A CEO or an Egyptian youth in Tahrir Square are both capable of violent, unjust, selfish behavior.

In fact, power in numerous, diverse hands may require numerous and diverse solutions. If we have access to more power, then we also have the responsibility to use it with greater intelligence, greater effect, and greater humanity. Moreover, if there was ever a time for a public discourse about power, now is that moment. In the struggle between consolidated authority and democratic power, the winner may be a matter of perspective. So too does what it mean to use power well.

Welcome to Power in the Public Eye. Our mission is to inform and educate the public on leaders’ behavior in order to promote fair, transparent, and effective uses of power. Who uses power, and how, are essential questions at the core of democracy’s future. Power in the Public Eye aims to empower more people to take part in shaping that future.

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[1] http://www.zapposinsights.com/about/holacracy
[2] http://smallbusiness.chron.com/importance-inverted-pyramid-organization-34447.html