The world seems embattled everywhere we look. Things clearly are not the same.
Countries that have long seemed in control and provided a feeling of stability and equilibrium seem seriously challenged, corporations that have long been seen as rock solid and established are either shaky, or in some instances have ceased to exist, communities are struggling to remain cohesive and often torn apart by conflicts previously unheard of, faiths are being shaken splinters among the believers that make the common person wonder where to look to for absolute truth and a reassurance previously provided by long-held beliefs.
What exactly is going on? Is this what is happening or is it just an illusion? What will happen next?
Moisés Naím, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Venezuelan ex-trade minister, among other equally prominent and influential positions he held, provides insight in incredibly provocative book entitled “The End of Power” in which he argues that power, as we know it, is decaying; it is ending in the traditional sense in practically every walk of life- from running states to the military and passing through everything in between- from religious institutions to corporations and in no way sparing the media along the way.
A cursory look at all around us is enough to tell us that things are no longer what they used to be, especially in as far as our perception and regard of power, and our ability to influence things and to get others to do, or stop doing, something or things we would like them to. A look at political institutions quickly leads us to the conclusion that even all powerful leaders are much more restricted in their ability to influence events around them than they seemed to previously be able to and for proof of that one needs to look no further than some of the more established western democracies to clearly see how encumbered all those leaders of powerful nations seem to be. Not one of them is able to push through decisions, actions and rally a nation behind them without looking like they are wading through molasses.
Religious establishments don’t seem to fair any better. Is it difficult to see how divided and splintered religions have become, with more and more movements within them, with more dissension within the ranks and a rise in smaller cells acting on their own, and often wreaking havoc in the name of interpretations that are not without a fair share of followers. And, when it comes to the corporate space, one feels bad for CEOs, who have traditionally had free hand in making decisions only to find themselves that they have much less space to navigate and manoeuvre, and have to cultivate agreement to get things done further slowing processes and actions at a time when speed has become a major advantage that spells fortune or ruin depending on whether one, or an organisation, is able to act speedily or not.
What has given rise to power in the wake of the industrial revolution is no longer what gives rise to it today. The Weberian model, named after Max Weber, favoured large-scale, bureaucratic, and centralised hierarchical structures where power was hogged by the few and the rest of the organisation acted as the muscle and to execute central commands. Thus great nations were built, thus wars were waged- won and lost- and that is how capitalist structures emerged, grew and dominated. Structures such as IBM and General Motors were prominent examples of such a buttoned-down culture of conformity and bureaucracy. But it is these same previously famed institutions that have symbolised an era are symbolising the dawn of a new one, and all we need to do is look no further than what is happening in the technology space for us to confirm that new players rule, and this in no way applies only to such organisations but to practically every domain where established players previously held seemingly unassailable positions, only for them to be challenged by previously unheard of upstarts.
The field of financial services provides a wonderful example in hedge funds that are upending a long-established industry and signalling the rise of a new era in which we will see more competition, more volatility, competition, fragmentation and the rise of micro powers able to thwart the actions of the established players. In the field of aviation two wonderful examples serve to make the point: Embraer that is challenging the likes of Boeing and Airbus, and Emirates Airlines giving the established a run for their money. Interestingly, both cases are of companies coming from the south and going north further signalling how the epicentres of power are moving.
Naím’s title “The End of Power” suggests that power is ending, and that obviously is not true. However, examined from the perspective where power has traditionally been held, there is merit to the thinking. My contention is that power is simply mutating and therefore its centres of gravity are in the process of shifting. The top-down rigid centralised hierarchical structures are increasingly unsuited for today’s life and economic necessities. We live in at a time when speed trumps scale, and the organisations that operate bottom up and have the advantage of smaller faster networked entities are those destined to win.
The mutation of power means we live in times of flux with risks and opportunities at the same time. We cannot be based on century-old principles, command-and-control principles, and still against nimble, specialised, free-flowing flexible entities. Rigidity will ultimately lose in this new world order. The new millennium has already convulsed twice so far: the first time was during the abominable events of 9/11, and was further followed by the financial meltdown starting 2008. While both of those events took place on specific dates, the mutation of power is in full swing and will continue for sometime to come. As we experience its fallout, I hope that its virtues will far outweigh its ills