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On Dec. 15, Executives’ Club CEO Margaret Mueller talked with Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former US ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun.

He’s written an insightful book, “The Power of Giving Away Power — How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go.” Barzun contends that organizations and leaders become more successful when they trade top-down management thinking for a more inclusive, inter-dependent approach.

Barzun worked on the Obama presidential campaign when it raised millions through small donations. The campaign’s breakthrough idea was recognizing the effectiveness of grassroots fundraising instead of relying on a small number of wealthy contributors.

“Seth Godin did a popular Ted Talk about ‘farming, not hunting.’ He was talking about marketing, but I thought about it in a campaign context. We’re in the farming business. Let’s plant seeds. Let’s ask everyone.”

—Matthew Barzun, Author and Former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Traditional organizational structures inhibit the potential of individuals because people invariably fall prey to the ‘pyramid trap,’ in which they see everything from the perspective of their own position in the hierarchy. Barzun said they get good at three narrow skills: Seeing who’s up and who’s down; focusing on specific tasks; chopping things into component parts. This comes at a cost.

“In our efforts to see who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, we lose awareness of other kinds of structures that don’t work that way at all. …Lots of things have order that just aren’t that kind of order.

When we get good at focus, we get tunnel vision. We lose peripheral awareness of other things all around us. And when we get good at chopping things into parts, we get less good at seeing things that only exist in relation with one another – things that we deal with all the time like a competitive landscape or customer satisfaction.”

—Matthew Barzun, Author and Former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Barzun identified organizations that cast aside the pyramid structure to function more collaboratively: the Visa bank card business, Alcoholics Anonymous and Wikipedia. Their alternative structures are collaborative but not chaotic.

“Hierarchies provide stability and order. People often think that if you leave the pyramid you’re either talking about anarchy or communism. That’s not what I’m advocating. There really is structure and rigor, like there was in the Obama campaign.”

—Matthew Barzun, Author and Former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Barzun identified early-20th Century thinker Mary Parker Follett as a crucial proponent of harnessing interdependence to achieve better results. She focused on how people engage with each other in meetings. Business management guru Peter Drucker said every important management and leadership idea stems from Parker Follett.

“She said there’s four outcomes of a meeting and only one of them is worthwhile. Number 1, you try to win the meeting. Why would you have anyone else at the meeting if you already have your idea fully fleshed out? Number 2 is the opposite: Just acquiesce. You know, Matthew, Margaret, they seem super fired up, just let them have their way. That’s no good. You’re depriving the group of yourself. Number 3, and this is the trickiest, is compromise. …You only get part of what you wanted, nothing more. Number 4 is the only good reason we should ever get together virtually, or in person: To make something. Co-creation.”

—Matthew Barzun, Author and Former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom

Barzun said understanding Parker Follett is key to successfully managing an organization that diffuses power to good effect. Compromise waters things down. Leading by decree is demoralizing and limiting. But true collaboration is magical because it leads to better outcomes while preserving individuals’ identities.

“I think Mary Parker Follett would say, ‘Don’t be afraid of differences. Difference is where all the energy and potential lives’. Don’t sweep it under the carpet. Don’t deny it. Embrace it and make it constructive. Use it to make something bigger and more useful than you could alone. …We want unity without demanding uniformity, and we want diversity without division. That’s the whole challenge.”

—Matthew Barzun, Author and Former United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom

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