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Want to stay in power? Give it away: The triumph of the ‘Constellation’ approach to leadership

Want to stay in power? Give it away: Matthew Barzun explores the triumph of the ‘Constellation’ approach to leadership over the hierarchical ‘Pyramid’ mindset

  • The Power of Giving Away Power tells the different approaches to leadership
  • Author draws from his experience on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign
  • The ‘Pyramid mindset’ is hierarchical while the ‘Constellation mindset’ is freer 

THE POWER OF GIVING AWAY POWER   

by Matthew Barzun (HarperCollins £20, 240pp)    

On the back of the American dollar bill, two images — both from the design of the Great Seal of the United States — stand out. On the left is a pyramid with an all-seeing eye at its pinnacle.

Across from it is the constellation of stars, each representing one of the original states. In this thought-provoking book about the best ways to stimulate creativity and innovation in society, Matthew Barzun takes these two images to symbolise two very different approaches to leadership.

The ‘Pyramid mindset’ is hierarchical, with power firmly entrenched at the top. It appeals to people who ‘think we must hoard power before someone else takes it and that we must lord it over others’.

The ‘Constellation mindset’ is freer and more open-ended. Leaders who possess it work ‘not by hoarding and lording power, but by doing the exact opposite — by giving it away’. Barzun finds his first example of the advantages of the constellation over the pyramid in a surprising place — the history of the encyclopedia.

The Power of Giving Away Power tells the different approaches to leadership – the ‘Pyramid mindset’ and the ‘Constellation mindset, as embodied by former US president Barack Obama (pictured)

In 18th-century Scotland an engraver named Andrew Bell had been scraping a living stamping family crests on to clerical dog collars.

Deciding there had to be a better road to prosperity, he joined forces with a book printer and a copy editor to create a compendium of human knowledge. This became the Encyclopedia Britannica, brand leader for two centuries.

It only lost that status when Bill Gates, on his way to becoming the world’s richest man, pumped Microsoft’s money into the computer-based Encarta. Both Encarta and Britannica were pyramid creations, where experts at the top passed their knowledge down to consumers.

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia of the internet age, is different.

It is collaborative, each major article the work of many contributors. It ‘is forever evolving, with no set destination, perpetuated by people joining together to serve a vision’. There are now more than six million articles in English and versions in more than 240 languages.

And the once-familiar comments on its unreliability no longer seem appropriate. It is a triumph of the ‘Constellation mindset’.

Matthew Barzun has himself had an interesting career from which to draw his conclusions about the virtues of the ‘Constellation mindset’.

Between 2013 and 2017 he was U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, but his most formative experience appears to have been working for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. The Obama of that year is his ideal exponent of ‘Constellation’ thinking.

THE POWER OF GIVING AWAY POWER by Matthew Barzun (HarperCollins £20, 240pp)

THE POWER OF GIVING AWAY POWER by Matthew Barzun (HarperCollins £20, 240pp)

How did an obscure senator, who was at one time 27 points behind in the race to become the Democratic Party nominee for president, go on to win it?

Through his willingness to be ‘predisposed to see the power in other people,’ as he once said. Therein lay his strength in 2008.

The Power Of Giving Away Power isn’t always an enlightening read for a British readership, but there’s no doubting the force of its thesis.

Cooperation rather than competition is the way forward. Life should not be some kind of race in which the winner takes all the prizes.

As Barzun points out, the ‘most important activities in our lives . . . are not winnable.

You don’t win a marriage or a family or a friendship, although if you try to win them you could very well lose them’.

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