The declining influence of leadership positional power in a network society


Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power — the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others — and this is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models. Harold Jarche writes frequently about this:

“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.”
Harold Jarchethe new networked norm

In other words, it’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.

As a consultant in various fields for 35 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice (and, yes, sometimes they do), but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change since otherwise I wouldn’t continue to be hired and (usually 😀) appreciated.

Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. While this development has caused significant disruptions — two are the virtual disappearance of long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse — there is a positive side.

The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. There’s no longer any reason to pick either positional or network era power; we can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.

Here’s Harold Jarche again:

“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.”
Harold Jarchechaos and order

This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and on board, but the most senior decision-maker, to whom I sometimes don’t even have access, will occasionally override everyone else in the organization and make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.

But the network era is here, and its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.

Image attribution: Flickr user thomwoo