Strength and power: how do they differ in the 21st century? And where might they come from, really?
Here are some thoughts I had after reading today's eye-popper of an article by David Carr, about Sam Zell's takeover of Tribune Co, detailing a company making all the wrong moves — and one where the boardroom is like a parody of Animal House.
One one level, as a company, Tribune Co is pursuing tired old 20th century advantage — in the most simplistic way possible, hoping that cutting costs to rake in a few tiny efficiency gains or adding a few ad pages will save it from sweeping strategy decay.
But on another level, Tribune Co has a deeper problem. Carr's hit the nail on the head: culture. If culture is a set of shared values, then we might say that what Zell's team values most is dominance. Beneath the boorish vulgarity, it's first and foremost a macho culture.
It's far from alone in this. You can see elements of this fist-pumping, back-slapping, guffawing, high-fiving macho culture, well, just about everywhere in the economy, from Wall Street, to Detroit, to Madison Avenue. Consider, for a moment, Wall Street's admiration of the archetypal "ruthless" investor; think, for a second, just how much journalists, analysts, and perhaps even the average shareholding joe (not to mention Carrie Bradshaw) all dote on him — how he's glorified and imitated. Macho values pervade not just our corporate cultures — but our broader culture. And wherever it's found, the macho perspective says: strength is dominance, I am dominant, here is my subordinate, see my strength.
But, to go back to my original question: maybe strength in the 21st century isn't about dominance. My hunch is that it's about the very opposite — it's about the capacity to evoke. It's about the willingness to serve a bigger purpose than yourself, the capacity to subordinate yourself to a larger goal than your own gain, the ability to spark the enduring bonds of shared values, intrinsic motivation, and mutually committed perseverance. It is, in short, not the power merely to command, subordinate, demean, insult — and then crow about it with impunity. It's the power to inspire, animate, infuse, spark, evoke — and then connect, link, and collaborate, to be a force multiplier.
Argue with me if you'd like, but I'd say that in the 21st century, strength is the power to evoke, and it consists of four other E's: the power to engage, ennoble, elevate, and enlighten. In these terms, most companies are about as strong as a two-pack a day couch potato who's sat in front of the TV five hours a night for the last twenty years. You know the dull, tuned-out, bored feeling you get at the supermarket, the mall, the high street? That's about the most most companies can evoke: a spectrum that begins with suspicious mistrust, moves through steaming frustration and flashes of anger, and ends with yawning apathy and shoulder-shrugging indifference.
That just isn't good enough anymore. Not for shareholders, and not for people, communities, or society. Cultures shape and determine our broader economic choices in surprisingly powerful ways. They constrain how we allocate and utilize resources, of course. But, more subtly, they mold how much we value the really big stuff. Like, for example, one another. Strength as subordination says: I only value for what you can produce for me, buy from me, or sell to me. I am in control, see my power. But strength as the power to evoke says: I value you for who you are, and what you can become. You are in control — see your power?
Maybe it's a stretch. But I'd suggest that the real roots of today's great crisis lie not just in how banks valued certain assets — but in how much we valued each other (not a lot). Hence, we misallocated capital spectacularly, and crashed and burned with a vengeance. Now the conflagration just isn't going away.
My hunch is that rebooting prosperity is going to require a deeper transformation than stimulus packages and bailouts can provide. A real recovery demands evolving, improving, and innovating our deeper, enduring values. It's going to demand shifting how much we value each other. And that means updating our very idea of strength to go beyond simplistic conceptions like dominance, control, and subordination.
In other words, we might have to update not just our corporate culture — but our culture. Maybe this great crisis is a wake-up call about what our culture has been, what it should be, and what it can be — not just as we think it, but more urgently, as we live it, and practice it.
All of which brings me to this: perhaps, if you want to explore the nascent art of innovating not just products, services, and business models, but, more deeply and powerfully, innovating values — if you want to be a trailblazer towards a more authentic prosperity, an explorer of newer, more wealth-creating companies, exchanges, and forms of advantage — here's one place to begin. Try leaping past yesterday's tired, thoroughly outdated conception of dominance and putting a smarter kind of strength into practice instead.